Wednesday

PHAYER SANS WIFE

As with almost all of the important things that have happened between Raymond and Miranda Phayer, this, too, starts in bed. Miranda is lying on her stomach, too tired for sex. Phayer does not press the issue. At nearly 77 years of age, he is, as he frequently says these days, “no longer an every-nighter.” He simply rolls closer and begins massaging her back.
He first feels the bump as he sweeps his hand from her coccyx up her spine, about mid-way between her shoulder blades. It instantly jumps out at him as something new, different, alien. But spines are like that, he thinks, the individual vertebrae knobby, migratory, friable. He kneads her buttocks, shoulders, upper arms before venturing back toward her spine.
And there it is again, hard, protruding, with a lifeless, inorganic feel, as if not quite human, more like plastic, not a real part of Miranda’s body. He says nothing, but his heart starts racing. How did it get there so fast, he wonders. It must have sprung up overnight.
Over the next few days, he tries to ignore it, drifting out of the bathroom as she enters to shower, or out of the bedroom as she changes into her nightgown. Perhaps he has simply imagined it.
Toward the end of the week, they have a tennis date with the Posnicks, and Miranda wears a backless top to counter the blazing heat of June in Scottsdale.
Posnick insists that this time they play with their own wives – he lost last week with Miranda as his partner – and whenever Miranda crosses in front of him at the net, Phayer can actually see the growth from a full ten to fifteen feet away. Maybe it’s just a fatty tumor, a cyst, he hypothesizes. But in his gut Phayer knows he is rationalizing, for at his age he’s had enough dermatologists and orthopedists palpating the lumps, nodes, wens, moles, warts, bunions, and calluses he’s presented to have developed a pretty good sense of what is serious and what is not.
Phayer can barely concentrate on the match, and Miranda plays poorly, uncharacteristically so, her feet lethargic, her reflexes at the net slow, off kilter. The Posnicks beat them one and love. Afterwards, they sit around drinking iced tea under the big shade umbrellas on the patio of the Anastazie clubhouse. Miranda drops her spoon, and as she leans over to pick it up, the skin over the lump on her back stretches as if it might split.
Phayer’s eyes shoot over toward Posnick, knowing instinctively that Posnick, like himself, and despite his advancing years, misses no opportunity to look up a skirt, down a blouse, aware that whenever a woman bends or stretches, one is likely to be treated to a greater swath of her skin. As he suspects, Posnick, too, sees the protuberance. He wastes no time. “Jesus Christ, Miranda, what’s that on your back?”
“What?”
Posnick gets up out of his chair. “This thing.” He takes Miranda’s hand and places it behind her. “How long have you had this?”
“I – I don’t know. Raymond, have you ever seen it before.”
“No. What?”
Posnick, always pugnacious, says, “Christ, Ray, don’t you guys sleep in the same bedroom. I don’t like the look of this thing at all.”
The Posnicks insist on driving them right down to the emergency room at the massive Mayo Clinic, just east of Scottsdale Road. Phayer holds Miranda’s hand, patting it reassuringly, while she stares straight ahead, stoically. Stella Posnick turns all the way around in her seat and smiles at Miranda. “I wouldn’t worry about a thing,” she says. “I’m sure it’s just some kind of cyst.”
A little more than a decade ago, Miranda had a biopsy of a lump on her right breast. It turned out to be benign, a fibroid tumor. During the week that they waited for the biopsy results, the one thing Phayer found himself dreading more than Miranda’s death was an agonizing, protracted illness. I am 63, he remembers thinking, I don’t want to miss out on my yearly trips with the guys to play golf in Scotland, in Cabo, on the Costa Del Sol, putting on an optimistic face as the cancer lays waste to Miranda’s body, sex out of the question. If this thing drags on I will be in my seventies by the time she dies. My life will be as good as over.
The emergency room doctor, a young man with the uncomplicated handsomeness of a soap opera actor and whom Phayer recognizes as one of the better golfers at Desert Vistas, comes out to tell him and the Posnicks that he is admitting Miranda immediately. A biopsy will have to be taken, but from what he saw on the CAT scan he does not like the look of the growth at all. Although it is Saturday night, he has called in one of Mayo’s top back surgeons to examine Miranda immediately. He has a feeling this is something they will want to excise from her body without delay.

Phayer pauses outside Miranda’s room. He does not know what he will say to her. Worse, he is terrified of meeting her eye. What will he see there? Barely repressed sheer animal panic? Accusation? Need?
Alone in the stark hospital hallway, Phayer shudders, for he knows what surely lies ahead – the wasted body, the crippling pain, the children flying in from wherever, cleaning her after a bowel movement, the endless days without golf, the dismal lab reports, the chemo-induced nausea, sleepless nights and waking every morning to a pall, a relentless, all-consuming pall. Will she be able to see it in his eyes, this monstrous, never-ending selfishness?
Phayer steps inside. Miranda is already hooked up to an IV. She looks to be asleep, but opens her eyes when he sits in the chair next to her bed. Meeting her eye proves to be less traumatic than he feared, for she looks drugged, exhausted. Her eyelids keep on drooping closed. “This is a fine kettle of fish,” she whispers. He takes her nearest hand and peppers it with kisses, even the bandages that are holding her IV in place. A full seventeen years older, he always assumed he would, as the insurance agents say, predecease her. Although he most certainly does not want to go first, still, this seems so grossly unfair.
As Miranda drifts in and out of sleep, Phayer holds her hand in both of his. This is not as bad as he had imagined. Does he love her, he wonders. In many ways, he has always resented her. Why? Because she was promiscuous before they’d ever met? Because she was warm and flirtatious with other men? He was reasonably sure she’d been faithful to him. Bore him three relatively sane and healthy children. Worked her way back from a severe dyslexia to become a successful orthodontist. Over the last decade contributed mightily to the absolute extravagance of his retirement. What the fuck did he want from the woman?

“Up until five years ago Miranda Phayer and I never played one single hole of golf together. Since then we have played six hundred and five rounds, some in the rain, some when it was only forty degrees out, a few times in thirty mile an hour winds.” Stella Posnick is standing at the podium of the massive Our Lady Of Joy Catholic Church on the corner of Cave Creek and Pima. She is reading from notes. “I know because last night I sat down and got out my calendars dating back to 1999. It’s all there in black and white. February 26th, 2000, 8:47 a.m., golf at Comanche, Miranda P. October 11th, 2002, lunch at Hava Java, Miranda P. December 24th, 2003, pre-Xmas lunch and gift exchange, Hopi Clubhouse, Miranda P. June 12th, 2004, Tennis, Anastazie courts, 2.30 p.m., Miranda P. And do you know something? In all that time together, I never once heard Miranda put anyone down, or curse after a bad shot, or gossip behind a friend’s back, or complain about her illness. I only wish I had a shred of her decency and dignity.” Tears well in Stella’s eyes, and her voice breaking, she addresses the ceiling. “Miranda, I will miss you more than you can ever know.”
There is an audible chorus of sobs and sniffles as Stella folds her notes. In her high black heels, she carefully navigates the half dozen steps to the floor, where she is surrounded by all three of the Phayer offspring, two of their significant others, and several of Phayer’s grandchildren.
Phayer himself is staring into space, unexpectedly moved by Stella’s words, ashamed at the lack of preparation that has gone into the eulogy he has prepared. He wonders if there is something missing in his emotional make up – an inability to connect, to care, to feel. The priest is gesturing for him to come to the podium, but, crumpling the notes in his pocket, Phayer shakes him off, as if too overcome to speak. The Father nods his understanding.
Phayer senses someone looming nearby, and realizes that Stella is waiting for a congratulatory hug. Phayer pushes himself to his feet, as quickly as his aging body allows, and he and Stella wrap their arms tightly around one another. He is stunned by the sudden spark of desire triggered by her lush, ample bosom melting against his chest. It has been over six weeks now, several days before he felt that awful growth on Miranda’s back. He feels called upon to say something. “That was beautiful, Stella, truly beautiful.” To his own ears, his words sound as canned as that of a news anchor signing off for the evening.

Phayer is sitting in the living room waiting for the last of his children to leave for the airport. He is restless. Super Shuttle is waiting out in the driveway. There is a Yankee game on Fox. He is reluctant to turn it on, for fear that Gilbert, his youngest, will disapprove. Gilbert has been the most heartbroken of the three, continually planting himself in front of Phayer for a hug, coming up behind Phayer out of the blue and massaging his back, and, as Phayer has stood listening to an endless stream of condolences, sidling up to him and laying his head on Phayer’s shoulder. Phayer has felt a need to match Gilbert’s bouts of sudden grief with bouts of his own….but he is simply unable.
Finally, he hears the thudding of his son’s suitcase bumping down the steps. Gilbert is unshaven, as he has been the whole ten days he’s been here, and is dressed in a shapeless tee shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes nearly black with dirt.
“Come on, I’ll help you with that.” Phayer gets up and takes his son’s suitcase by the handle. “The guy’s been waiting out there for fifteen minutes.” He pushes open the front door and wheels the suitcase rapidly toward the shuttle. He hands the suitcase to the driver who tosses it unceremoniously into the back of the van.
Gilbert has not yet appeared. Phayer can stand it no longer. “Park,” he shouts, “they’re going to leave without you.” Phayer wants nothing more than for everyone to be gone. He knows the house will feel empty, that it will be the first time since Miranda’s passing that he will be completely alone. His bedrock feeling is: he can take it. Bring it on.
Gilbert shuffles through the front door, his laces untied. He is eating an apple. Phayer feels a murderous impulse to grab the young man by the lapels of whatever it is he’s wearing over his tee shirt and bumrush him into the van. Instead, he molds his face into a sad and solemn frown.
“Are you going to be okay, Dad?” For what feels like the hundredth time that day, Gilbert moves into Phayer’s arms for a hug, pressing his straggly face against Phayer’s immaculately shaved cheek.
“Going to do the best I can.”
Gilbert is now holding him at arm’s length, the rims of his eyes red, Phayer not sure whether from crying or pot or a mixture of both. “You miss her so much, don’t you, Pop?”
“Your mother was a great woman, a great woman.” Go already!
The driver moves a step toward father and son. “Sorry, don’t mean to rush you, but I’ve got other stops to make.” He opens the door for Gilbert, who says, “Call me if you need me, Dad, I’ll be there for you.”
Phayer nods grimly. The van pulls around the circular driveway and out onto Desert Turnpike. Phayer watches, waving at it till it disappears from sight.
Taking a deep breath, girding himself, he walks slowly back into the suddenly empty 6,600 square foot house. He had wanted something much smaller, but Miranda had insisted. What happens if all the kids and grandkids are here at the same time. It has taken six years and her death to make it happen.
He flops down on the couch, picks up the remote, and turns on the Yankee game. They are playing the Red Sox in New York, it is the bottom of the seventh, and the Yankees are down four to two. The Yankees have two men on base and Jeter is at bat. The count is two balls, two strikes. Jeter fouls off the next pitch, a wicked slider over the outside corner of the plate. Come on, hang in there, Phayer silently implores his favorite player of all time.

Phayer orders a Glenfiddich on the rocks, tells the bartender he’s going to have dinner at the bar, then heads into the men’s room, pees, which he seems to be doing almost every hour these days and, as he washes his hands, studies himself in the mirror. Always a dramatically handsome man, he is surprised at how good he looks, what with the recent lack of sleep, the emotional turmoil of the last six weeks. The great head of silver hair, thick as any college freshman’s, the blue eyes, even the lines of age and fatigue adding character, charisma. Not bad for a 77 year old man. He thinks ruefully how awful it is to be 77.
He has a salad and a decent piece of grilled swordfish, eating at the bar – an old trick he learned as a young salesman on the road in Cleveland and Milwaukee for the family tool and hardware business. Pick the best restaurant in town, but never walk in and ask for a table for one. You stand out like a sore thumb and imagine all meal long that the other diners are thinking how pathetic you are.
No, march straight to the bar, tell the bartender you are having dinner, and within fifteen minutes you’ll wind up in conversation with a whole bevy of people, some of them women, not infrequently an attractive one whom you will wind up fucking later in the evening and who will be happy to have dinner with you on subsequent trips to their god awful cities.
On the twin TVs overlooking the bar, there is a play-off game between the Pacers and the New Jersey Nets, whose stadium is just minutes from Phayer’s home in Ridgewood. He makes a mental note that perhaps it is time to put the house on the market, but the thought of heading back east to sort through Miranda’s boxes of letter, photos, and children’s memorabilia exhausts him.
The game is hotly contested, and Phayer is surprised to find himself pulling strongly for his New Jersey Nets. In anticipation of arriving home to his eerily empty house, he orders a third glass of cabernet and when that is finished a fourth.
Just before eleven three women who appear to be somewhere in their fifties take the seats to Phayer’s left. Two of them are from Indianapolis and cheer boisterously every time the Pacers make a basket. “Hey, those are my Nets, ladies,” announces Phayer.
“You’re from New Joisey,” says the prettiest. “New Joooiiiisey.”
One of Phayer’s favorite retorts is from the Jersey actress Linda Fiorentino: And where are you from that’s so fuckin’ great!
Phayer can’t help himself. Although he already knows it’s Indiana, he asks, “And where are you from that’s so fuckin’ great?”
There is a mild communal gasp, and then the three women burst into laughter at the feisty chutzpah of this dignified, silver haired older gentleman. “You know, you remind me of another Ray,” says one of the women, who is now slurring her words a bit. “Ray Milland,” She turns to her companions who avidly agree.
“Do you live on campus, Ray,” asks the prettiest.
Phayer nods.
“Whereabouts?”
He always loves giving the answer, in the falsely modest way kids who’ve been asked where they go to school say Harvard? – half answer, half question, as if there’s an outside chance you may never have heard of it. “Anastazie Ridge?”
“Oh, my God, that’s where all the mansions are,” says the first.
“That’s my favorite village in all of Desert Vistas,” says the second.
“Which one is yours?” asks the third. “They have the greatest views of the Valley up there.” She is the prettiest one, with a long slender neck and a head of wildly permed hair. She is close enough for Phayer to smell her perfume. She throws an arm over Phayer’s shoulders. “This is going to be my new sugar daddy,” she declares.
“I’ll tell you what,” says Phayer, “Why don’t you all come over for a drink? I’ll give you the grand tour.”
The women exchange glances, communicating volumes without actually speaking, like computers thinks Phayer. The woman furthest from him looks at him curiously. “Did you say your last name is Phayer?” Phayer nods.
“Isn’t your wife Miranda Phayer?” Phayer nods again. “Oh, I’m so sorry. We used to play golf together. What a beautiful swing.”
The mad, alcohol-fueled conviviality is quite suddenly dashed. “A great swing,” adds Phayer. “Do you know she had four holes in one?”
“You’re kidding,” says the prettiest. “I’ve never had one.”
“Me, neither,” says Phayer. The others all concur.
“The – the funeral was today, wasn’t it?” asks one of the women.
“Yes, yes, it was,” says Phayer solemnly. I am so busted.
“Can we take a rain check, Ray,” says the Alpha of the group. “I’m sure you’re in no mood to lead three inebriated chicks around your house.”
The truth is, he’s very much in the mood to lead the wild-haired pretty one on a house tour, particularly of his bedroom, but he is too ashamed to press the point. Yes, a rain check. Certainly. He drains the last of his fourth cabernets and arrives home mercifully drunk, oblivious to the creaks and squeaks, the various appliance sounds and lights that make modern kitchens, living and bedrooms look like a BMW dashboard in the dark.
Phayer falls onto his bed, face unwashed, teeth unbrushed, clothes still on. He gets up to pee just after four, knocks down a Clonapezam, and tumbles back into bed. He is awakened by the phone ringing. “Where the fuck are you?” asks Posnick. “We’re on the tee in twenty minutes.” Phayer staggers out of bed toward the bathroom.
He arrives at the Hopi Clubhouse with three minutes to spare. Posnick, Lerner, and Hanratty are all on the practice green, putting. Each walks over and gives him a long, consoling hug, Lerner rubbing his back as if he were an unhappy child.
They throw up balls, and the sides turn out to be the Gentiles against the Jews. Although he has practiced his putting and chipping at times, Phayer has not played an actual round of golf since Miranda took ill. The Clonapezam has left him feeling lethargic and befogged. He is hung over. His focus is fractured, and he feels more than a little depressed. The day is hot, for Scottsdale surprisingly muggy. Phayer finds himself sucking at the air for breath.
Today, a Monday, feels, for the first time since Miranda’s death, like a workday, a serious day, the first day of the rest of his life without his wife.
He and Hanratty lose the front nine three and one. Without consulting Phayer, Hanratty presses the back. And, thanks mainly to Hanratty, they step onto the tee of the 18th hole leading the back by two.
The 18th at Hopi is one of the most dramatic holes in all of Arizona, a 165 yard par three over a wild, rocky chasm to a long narrow green, with treacherous sand traps on either side. It is not uncommon for two or three members of a foursome to shoot a quadruple bogey here, a full four strokes over par.
Hanratty hits first, an enormously high eight iron that hooks wildly to the left, bouncing on the cart path and up onto the Hopi porch overlooking the green. Phayer, older and weaker than Hanratty, selects a six iron. He stands over the ball with almost no confidence, having not struck a really solid shot all day. He worries that Miranda’s death and his recent 77th birthday signal the beginning of a rapid decline in his game. As a widower without golf or hobbies, what could he possibly do with the ending of his days?
Phayer summons every ounce of concentration, then takes a deep, calming breath. I must take a long, relaxed, heedless swing, who cares where the fucking ball goes. And he does. The ball takes off his clubface with the crisp click of a well-struck shot. It soars high in the air and straight, landing several yards behind the pin on the two-tiered green. The ball rolls up the hill, looking full well as if it might reach the top tier and stay there. But it does not quite have enough steam, and, imperceptibly, begins to trickle down the hill, an inch a second, then two, then five, until now it is rolling at quite a clip, tracking toward the pin, which it hits with an audible ping, disappearing quite suddenly into the hole. Phayer has seen several of these in his life, never one of his own, and the sudden disappearance of the ball some 165 yards away has an almost magical quality to it. Phayer blinks his eyes. Has he really seen what he thinks he has?
His compatriots leap in the air, high five him, pound him on the back, and drag him into the men’s grill as if returning a conquering general to the homeland. Phayer accepts all the kudos and congratulations, the handshakes and pats on the back, from men he’s never met before with a kind of modest bemusement.
Over lunch, Lerner keeps on shaking his head. “Unbelievable. Alex and I both birdie 18, and you beat us with a fucking ace. Unbelievable.”
As they wait in front of the clubhouse for the valet to bring their cars, Posnick announces, “Boys, poker tonight, my house at seven. Dinner will be served. Tim, your turn to bring the cigars.”
Phayer presses the garage door opener, and Miranda’s silver Lexus is sitting there as if she has just come back from yoga. An image arises – Miranda at the kitchen sink as he steps into the house from the garage. He says, “Hey, guess who got a hole in one today,” and she turns from the sink, wiping her hands on her shorts, throwing open her arms. “Oh, my God Raymond, that is so great.” She is so fucking unbelievably happy for him and her joy is so much more genuinely generous than that of the tight-lipped Midwestern bozos knocking down roast beef shooters in the Men’s Grill that when she wraps her arms around him he, for the first time since the ball rolled into the cup, feels the true joy, after nearly sixty years, of having at long last made a hole in one. He luxuriates in her warmth, her aroma, her, yes, love, which is, of course, when it hits him like a thunderbolt that she is not in the kitchen and never will be again.
The accompanying ache is sudden and gargantuan. Phayer lays his head on the steering wheel and begins to sob.

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