Tuesday

Wife Number Three

Skipper looked up from under the brim of his ten-gallon and watched as the hostess led the septet of Easterners toward the rear most table in the far corner of the main dining room of Joe Steak. It was slow going. The patriarch of the group, a man of about 70 with a shock of thick gray hair, inched forward behind his walker with the characteristic shuffle of a Parkinson’s sufferer. Trailing him were two females, the younger of them a teenager, and then three males, two dapper men of around 40, one with a goatee, the other with earrings in both ears, and bringing up the rear, a balding, bespectacled man of about 50.
There was something familiar about the group, and as Skipper finished “Cold, Cold Heart” and started “Workin’ Man Blues,” he watched them take their seats around the circular table near the great stone fireplace. The lighting in the room was subdued, but the sudden licks of flame illuminated the face of one, the hair of another, the profile of a third, and slowly it dawned on Skipper that these were the Blechners, Rachel, his first wife, her father Miles, his and Rachel’s daughter, Lily, Skipper’s only child. The dapper man with the beard had to be Justin, Rachel’s younger brother. Skipper had always suspected he was gay. The man with the earrings then must be his friend. And the balding man, he guessed, was Rachel’s current husband.
Skipper suddenly felt terribly exposed, for if the dining room was underlit, his set-up at the very front of the room sat directly under a small spotlight. He tugged his enormous hat lower on his brow and bent forward, watching his fingers dance upon the strings, as if he were a classical guitarist caught up in some kind of reverie. He puffed deeply on the Marlboro that dangled from his lower lip and exhaled slowly, letting the smoke collect under the brim, hoping it might somehow obscure his face.
Skipper let the song he was playing just peter out. Leaving off the entire last stanza, he mumbled, “Gonna take a little break,” and sprang from his seat, hightailing it for Joe Stacato’s office at the rear of the restaurant. “Joe, little emergency in the trailer. Theresa can’t get the electricity back on.”
“What the hell is it with women and electricity, Skip?”
“Beats the shit out of me. Anyways, should make it back in time for the second set.”
“Whatever it takes, Skip. A man can’t leave his gal in the dark.”

Skipper stepped up into the trailer. Theresa was playing gin rummy with Rafe, the 19 year old son of the couple in the trailer next door. “What the hell you doing home,” she said without looking up. She was holding her cards awkwardly, her fingers sticking straight out in the manner of someone letting her nails dry. “You get fired, or something?”
“Isn’t it difficult playing cards like that?”
“Not for me.” With her fingers extended, she picked up a cigarette from the ashtray and took a look, theatrical drag.
“I thought you didn’t like Marlboros,” said Skipper. He noticed Rafe was smoking a Marlboro as well.”
“Ran out of Salems.”
“Doesn’t he have his own?”
“He ran out, too. Hey, what is this, Dragnet?”
“I was just asking?”
Theresa and the boy continued picking up and throwing down cards as if Skipper weren’t there. “You’re dead,” said Theresa finally, fanning her cards upon the table.
“Shit,” said the young man. “I can’t win a game.”
“You keep dealing. My nails ain’t dry yet.” Rafe scooped up the cards. “So, Haskew, like I said, what’re you doin’ home? They fire your sorry ass outta there?”
Skipper cleared his throat. “Um, Rafe, can I talk to Theresa a minute?”
“Sure, I don’t mind.”
“Alone.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” He got up from the table.
“Oh, Christ,” said Theresa, “if you think I’m gonna pull down my pants for some kid hardly out of diapers – “
“That’s not what it’s about,” said Skipper. He took Rafe by the elbow and steered him toward the door.
“Jiminy,” said Theresa, “somebody’s in a pissy mood.”
Skipper told her about seeing the Blechners at Joe Steak, describing in broad strokes how he met Rachel at A.S.U., got her pregnant, the hastily arranged marriage. And then when the baby was born prematurely, a girl rather than the future pro quarterback Rachel’s father was hoping for, how Miles Blechner took Rachel and the baby back to their home in Philadelphia and wouldn’t let Skipper see them – ever. He left out the part about the $75,000 divorce settlement because, one, he didn’t want Theresa to think he’d let himself be bought and, two, in a move he considered to be the one really smart thing he’d done in his life, he’d immediately plunked most of the money into a T-bill fund that now was worth over $225,000. For the life of him, he didn’t want Theresa to find out about that.
“Well, Jesus H. Christ, Skipper has a Jeweesh daughter.”
“She’s half-Catholic, too.”
“You idiot,” said Theresa. “Don’t you know that with those people it all comes down through the mother. If the mother is Jew, the kids are all Jew. What’s her name? Miriam? Esther?”
“Lily. I’ve never actually met her.”
“Well, I highly recommend you get your ass back to Joe Steak this second and make her acquaintance. She’s your own flesh and blood for God sake.”
Skipper took a deep breath and sat down at the table. “I don’t know, Theresa, what would I say? How would I introduce myself? These are, these are – ” he wanted to say rich but knew that Theresa would come down upon him savagely – “these are, uh, cultivated people.”
Skipper took the last Miller out of the six-pack on the table and screwed off the cap. He drained nearly half the bottle in one long gulp. “The fact is, I came back here ‘cause I don’t really want to see those people. I don’t want to have anything to do with ‘em.”
“God damn it, Skipper, after the way they treated you, they owe you. You’re that girl’s daddy.”
Skipper took another long drink of beer. “Well, don’t just sit there,” said his wife. “Get back down there and say hello.”
Ever so slowly, Skipper rose from the table and ambled toward the door. He picked up his ten gallon from the kitchen counter and placed it carefully upon his head.
“Get going,” screamed Theresa. And, as Skipper let himself out the door, “And tell Rafe to get his ass back in here.”

Skipper had no intention of reconnecting with the Blechners. He waited in the parking lot in his truck for what seemed like hours before he saw the balding man he assumed was Rachel’s husband emerge from Joe Steak and hold the door open for Miles Blechner’s walker. The older man struggled through the door and after him Skipper’s ex-wife, daughter, and then the two dapper men. Skipper watched as they all climbed into a big black Suburban, the two dapper men struggling to lift Miles into the front passenger’s seat.
The crowd had thinned markedly by the time Skipper once again took his place at the front of the room. A handsome blond woman approached and asked if he knew Pancho and Lefty. Skipper smiled. “That’s a great song.”
“One of my favorites,” she replied.
Skipper took a long swig from his beer as he watched the woman retake her seat at a nearby table. Desert Vista people, he thought to himself. Both the men had jackets on, the women expensive-looking jewelry.
“Pancho was a bandit, boy,” sang Skipper, and the good-looking blond and a man with silver hair got up to dance, and then a moment later the other couple looked at each other, shrugged, and got up, too.
Pancho and Lefty wasn’t an easy song to dance to, but the silver-haired man moved smoothly and with a certain flair, twirling the blond woman rather elegantly in and out of his arms. The other man moved uncertainly and appeared several times ready to just stop, at which point his wife would pull him closer and turn him to the right or left.
When the song ended, the blond woman walked straight over from the makeshift little dance floor and pushed a twenty into the brandy snifter serving as Skipper’s tip jar. She asked if it was okay if they kept dancing. Skipper nodded yes. Did he know Third Rate Romance and Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.
“You’ve got good taste,” Skipper drawled, and the woman seemed to light up.
The two couples kept dancing, even though there were no other patrons in the restaurant. The bartender stared at Skipper angrily, but Skipper just shrugged. Nothing he could do.
A few times it looked as if the couples might exchange partners, dropping their arms, gathering as a foursome in the middle of the floor. Skipper had seen it a million times, the temptation, the impulse, and then the falling away, the lack of resolve. Maybe they’ll be back, he thought. Another night. The excitement lingering, getting up the nerve. He’d seen that a million times, too. For some reason he didn’t understand, he always found himself rooting against it.

The phone in the trailer rang early. Skipper blinked his eyes and found the clock on the cable box. 8:03. Shit. Couldn’t be anyone they knew, because everyone they knew knew they both worked nights and slept till noon.
The portable phone wasn’t in its cradle, and Theresa thrashed crankily in the bedding. “Who the fuck is that,” she croaked.
Skipper finally found the phone under a wrinkled dish towel next to the kitchenette sink and hurried outside wearing nothing but his boxers. He closed the door beside him and sat on the front step. In Cave Creek Trailer Park sitting outside in your boxers was nothing.
“Skipper?” said a woman’s voice.
His mind scrambled frantically. The voice was familiar, and he felt panicked to identify it before it identified itself. “This is Rachel.”
“Wow, Rachel.”
“You were great last night.”
“Thanks, thanks a lot.”
“I mean, back when we – well, you were pretty good but now you sound wonderful. Authentic.”
“Too many Marlboros, too much Jack Daniels.” In the old days, Rachel was always trying to get him to quit smoking. He was hoping to get the same response now, but she was quiet. “Is that your husband?”
“Baldy?”
Skipper chuckled. “Yeah.”
“Yep. And the guy with the gold hoops is Justin’s, and Dad came down with Parkinson’s a couple of years ago, and Mom died of kidney disease a couple of years back, so she couldn’t be with us last night, and Lily thinks you’re the handsomest man she’s ever seen and wants to meet you.”
“Lily. That’s so pretty.” Skipper had a sudden and overwhelming impulse to cry. It caught him totally off-guard, and he had to wait several seconds to speak. “And you?”
“Me? I’m okay.” Now Skipper heard a catch in her throat, and it was a few seconds before she went on. “So, listen, Lily has her driver’s license, you can drive in Arizona at eleven or something, and she wants to meet you at the coffee bar over in Cave Creek. You know which one I’m talking about?”
“Hav-a Java.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Hav-a Java. How come every place that serves food in Arizona has a trick name, Skipper?”
“Beats the shit out of me.”
“Will you meet her, Skip? I know we’ve been unspeakably horrible to you.”
“Sure. Sure, I’d love to.” Skipper waited a beat. He found it hard to ask for things, and the more he wanted them, the harder he found it. “And you? Will you be coming along?”
“Uh uh. I don’t think it’d be a good idea.”
“I sure would like to see you again, Rachel.”
“I never could keep my hands off you, Skipper. I’m not sure Lily wants to see her mother grabbing some country singer’s crotch.”

Skipper had thought his daughter was pretty, but in the darkness and shock of the other evening, he never really got a good look at her. Sitting across from her at the little table for two on the patio of Hava-Java under the lavish mid-day Arizona sun, he could see she was stunning, the better of each parent’s features coming together in her face, his thick blondish hair yet with Rachel’s ringlets, his large blue eyes, Rachel’s long, dense lashes, her mother’s plump lips, his well-shaped jaw, and, finally, Rachel’s wit and aliveness dancing in Lily’s eyes and all across her face.
They didn’t say much at first, just looked at each other and smiled, the girl, like her mother, by far the more loquacious of the two. She loved his voice. Wished he didn’t smoke so much. Had her heart set on Brown. Thought it was funny that a country and western singer could come from Jersey. Was second team all-county in the pole vault. Grandpa came not only to her meets but all her practices, sometimes in a wheelchair. Did he have e-mail? Could she write to him, he didn’t have to write back? Could he send her a tape or CD of his songs?
Skipper was dizzy with love and longing and a most unfamiliar billowing of pride in his chest, one could almost say, the very opposite of heartburn. He helped create this – thing. True, with no forethought or intention, but, still, it was his sperm, and, clearly, this child that was partially his was second to no one. No one. Without realizing it, he reached out and took her hand and she held his back.
He walked her to the brand new BMW 525 fire engine red convertible, and she threw her arms around him and kissed him on both cheeks. For the first time since they’d been together, he realized this was a tall girl, very tall, just three or four inches shorter than his 6’ 2” frame.
When he opened the door for her and she slid behind the steering wheel, he felt relieved. The pleasure of being with her was too intense. He was afraid of something spoiling it. He checked his watch. The 45 minutes they’d spent together was perfect, like a delicious song that lasted just the right amount of time, leaving you yearning to hear it again.

That night Skipper sang his songs at Joe Steak with an extraordinary sense of well-being, and those that were lucky enough to be in attendance wondered why such a talented singer was wasting his life as a kind of entertainment after-thought in a mid-level steak restaurant.
The two couples from Desert Vistas came in again, and the handsome blond woman stuffed two twenties in his tip snifter and requested good country and western songs, not the lame America right or wrong stuff on the top 40 charts, whose chord changes are so predictable they’re absolutely no fun to play.
This time the two couples danced with each other’s spouses, and ordered a third and fourth bottle of wine. It was a Saturday night, and so the staff was less uptight about the Desert Vistas people staying well past closing time. The silver-haired man from one couple and the dark-haired woman of the other couple really seemed to be hitting it off, dancing every song together. Their spouses, on the other hand, weren’t much as dancers, and after two or three songs just sat down and watched.
It was nearly midnight when they finally got up to go, the four of them pretty shit-faced. The silver-haired man and dark-haired woman lingered a few steps behind the others, holding hands. Skipper found himself hating them.
He sat at the bar and had a Jack and soda and chatted with the barmaid, a skinny, bony woman in her mid-thirties who looked like she could use a good meal. She wasn’t very appealing or even remotely interesting, but Skipper wasn’t in the mood to face Theresa, who would be getting home from her job as a blackjack dealer at the Indian Casino right about now. She’d want to know all about his meeting with Lily, pretending she was happy about his reuniting with his daughter, but really probing to see if there was anyway she could compel Skipper to extract some money from the Blechners.
So Skipper had another Jack and soda, and when he finally left for home it was after one. Theresa, was still up, though, moving about the bedroom of the trailer, putting underthings in a suitcase.
“You’re still up,” said Skipper.
“Fuckin’ Dick Tracy here.”
“I mean, usually you’re asleep by now.”
“Yeah, well, I got news for you, Skipper, I’m leaving and I’m taking the car.”
Skipper didn’t say anything, merely watched as she opened a drawer and scooped out an armful of hosiery. “This guy came in tonight, played at my table for about an hour, lost God knows how much, then offered me a job at The Sands. 40 bucks an hour.”
Skipper whistled. “Vegas, huh. The big time.”
“So I said yes. I’m driving all night, sleeping all day, and working tonight’s late shift.”
Skipper waited for quite a while, before he said, “I guess this is it, then?”
Theresa picked up the suitcase and started moving toward the door. “This isn’t any good, Skip, not for you, and I know not for me. Come on, walk me to the car.”
Skipper put the suitcase in the trunk for her, then walked to the driver’s side of the Chevy Cavalier. Theresa was already behind the wheel. “So how’d your meeting with Miriam go?” she asked.
“Lily. Great. She’s a beautiful girl.”
“And?”
“What do you mean And?”
“You know.”
“I don’t know.”
“The money, Skipper. Are they gonna come across with any money?”
“Oh, that. Yeah. Nothing for me, but they want to transfer half a million bucks of their IBM stock to your portfolio. They just need to know your investment house.”
“Fuck you, I’ll bet you didn’t even ask.”
“You got that right.”
Skipper bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “Sorry about the car,” she said, “but you can buy something new.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he said.
“Shit, Skipper, you got $227,000 in the bank.”
He looked at her as if he didn’t understand, trying his damndest to hide his astonishment.
“What did you think, I wasn’t gonna snoop around when you were out.” Theresa cackled and put the car into gear. “Half of that’s mine, you know,” she hollered just before she roared out onto Cave Creek Road, kicking up a fine cloud of dirt.

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