Lucky To Have Her
You can say I failed. I won’t disagree with you. But life is a story told after the fact. At what did I or does anyone else fail? Among all the flesh and bone, bodies mixing and drifting apart, is failure even possible? Or, it is just a safety line, an anchor into an orderly past?
My boots sink into the soft brown soil. The field ahead curls slightly as it rolls up to meet the skyline. Stubble, dried and cracked, laced with threads of ruin. Discolored corn stalks protest under the weight of my heavy old boots. “Clodhoppers” we called them when we were boys running in sneakers, the age I am now a place out of imagination’s reach. I’ve worn the same pair for years. They became too comfortable to give up.
Tired of asking, “You still wearing those things?” Gail now just looks and twists her lips in dismay.
Boys will be boys, I think, and it only gets worse as you get older.
Ravaged through a long winter, the crops died, destroyed by cold, wind, snow and ice. A pale sky struggles to gather vigor, its blue diluted, smudged with a scattering of unimpressive clouds. The sun’s angle begins to answer a call for spring.
It’s early April. My brother Tim, excited by a contrary view discovered in The Waste Land, recited the opening lines from memory. Eliot’s strange idea that April, a month, any month, was cruel, not just grids of seven numbers on a calendar.
Snow built up from the last thaw in early January melted. Ice beneath lost its grip a week ago. Gusts of warm, humid air pushed into this valley, rolling downhill from the crest on the far side, then bursting back up again to where I’m standing. It’s an anxious time of year, waiting with rational uncertainty for summer.
I have never liked it. When Tim went around our house giving voice to Eliot’s griping, so many years ago, the first line infected me.
Convinced that summer always comes? Knowing it will doesn’t help. Time is a contrivance. Made up and adjustable, like fat pants, for the occasion. Maybe it’s all those newspaper stories, growing up, about atomic bombs. A catastrophic end that words stood no hope of reducing to digestible fact. When was it going to happen? What would be in a dead or near dead world? Would it be enough to make survival, crawling out from shelter into a scorched universe, reeking with poison gases, worth it? Probably, it would be so bad. You’d take a deep breath gladly, your spirit taken out to wherever God would have you. An angry as hell God too, aware you played along.
I recall that ridiculous pissing contest among men in suits. Who had the most terrifying annihilation options to shove at the other? Our crazy generals or their crazy general, in shadows after World War II. The players overheated juveniles old enough to shave, adrenaline of imagining mass murder addictive. Both superpowers, not to mention China, determined to convince the world it had the biggest bombs. And greater willingness to drop them, if anyone was asshole enough to push them too far.
Yet, people are nostalgic for the Fifties.
Between the world powers then, there were enough warheads to wipe out the planet a hundred times over. More if the weather cooperated.
What kind of man drove to the office or the factory to work in this field of mutually assured obliteration? Did they sleep at night or did they chew gravel, just to stay mean? What must the psyche of the CEO be like? Gears and switches, maybe a little grease, but no blood, no internal heating mechanism, no viscera reacting to every touch…?
I smile, alone, as I push my heals one step after another up toward the tree line, picturing Dick Cheney in my head. The prototype has been around since Dr. Strangelove. We just didn’t have to look at it every day in the 1960s.
I used to stop along the road on my newspaper route to read reports in the Binghamton Press. The worst horrors always got real estate on the front page. That’s what newspapers do. Scared into reading, making advertisers happy. Fear pulsed through my skinny preteen frame like a third system, competing with blood and lymph.
But those days are over. I no longer expect a nuclear holocaust and even wonder why it bothered me at the time. Why didn’t I know that gone is gone? What was there to be afraid of? Does it matter so much which vehicle picks you up when you catch your final ride? Nuclear holocaust has the great advantage of being, at root, democratic. All obliterated, kings and peasants alike.
Up along the horizon, an acre above me, young trees wait for leaves locked inside to break free. Branches once frail, whipped by the wind all the way down to the trunk broke through the surface a decade or so back. The farmer who owned this land gave up and moved to North Carolina. No one found willing to take over milking cows and harvesting fields of wheat twice each summer. So, with its dairy cattle sold off, the farm sat. And nature continued its work unfettered, roughing things up with weeds, then ruder bushes.
I walk these fields regularly, and I often think of Ginny…
When I walk up here, I see easily across the shallow valley. Patterns show a map of farms. The Erie Canal spurred Upstate New York into a thousand gardens of prosperity. Old growth was enthusiastically clearcut. Wheat shipped through feeder canals, pioneers’ produce launched across the state, down the Hudson and over the Atlantic. Along the way, everyone made money. Two centuries later, the canal, once a wonder of the modern world, a ditch alongside the State Turnpike. It draws hikers and a few recreational boats. There’s barely a hint that it was a wonder of the engineering world that destroyed pristine environments for profit.
Contrary son of bitch that I am, I mourn instead the old growth forest. Natives wore paths through its shelter before greedy Europeans crashed ships full of religious zealots into the shore.
“You’re a crazy man,” my wife Ginny used say to me. “You never see things the way other people do.”
“That’s my thing,” I assured her, and it was, although it wasn’t all that original. I let her embrace the story she liked.
But that was so long ago I can barely see it. I can’t feel it at all.
Beating all bettors, Ginny and I stayed married for more than forty years, until death did us part. Measured by changes, it seemed longer.
We weren’t happy every day, and whole years went by that were rarely punctuated with satisfaction. But consider that we were kids — she just fifteen and pregnant, I seventeen and too bold to steer clear of disasters — on the day we got married, and you have to agree that we did better than anyone had a right to expect. Shotgun weddings, as we called them then, didn’t often result in marital bliss.
Ginny died three years ago. She did not get to retire with me or enjoy the free time we used to talk idly about after dinner, time not so much for travel or playing golf as others we knew did, but to sleep in on weekdays, share a leisurely breakfast and read the newspaper, front to back. We grew simpler with our lives. I don’t know why we never changed. Simple was all we could get our hands on in the beginning, but not really after that. Others from similar backgrounds became so acquisitive that their idea of a good time meant going to the mall to be surrounded by things to buy, need them or not. Neither Ginny nor I caught that bug.
Breast cancer won the war waged against her body, tactically springing up with lethal adventurers in new places whenever one battlefield was cleared. It took a couple of years to beat her. Ginny was resilient. She never quit.
I should amend that. The last few weeks, she accepted her fate, but I wouldn’t call that quitting either, more like that old saying, going with the flow.
We talked, opening up as we never had. We closed some chapters. But before relaxing into the homestretch for her exit, Ginny still got up in the morning with her usual happy to be alive smile, as she had the first day I rolled over and found her in the same bed with me, and repeated her kitchen routine. There was no doubt that a future awaited, at least for that day.
“You are a crazy man…”
I walk these fields regularly, and I often think of Ginny. I wonder if she’s there, you know? Ginny was a Christian. Although she gave up on getting me to go with her, she drove to church every Sunday until she was too sick to sit in a pew. The minister and some parishioners brought the faith to her when that was all she had left. They prayed with her in our living room. I tried to stay out of their way.
“Brother McCarthy,” Reverend Singleton said softly, stepping into the kitchen where I was unsuccessfully hiding behind a newspaper, “why don’t you join us? I know you don’t believe, but there’s nothing to fear. Maybe a prayer would help.”
Singleton was a big man, fat but also hearty, with a reasonable amount of gray beginning to salt his nicely cut black hair. I found his piety phony enough to be annoying, a fact I shared with no one. But I was grateful that he blessed Ginny with a power I couldn’t deliver, let alone believe in. She wanted it. He gave it to her.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” I felt compelled to say. “Making believe just gives me the willies, man. You wouldn’t want me to crack jokes about Jesus, would you, you know, to relieve the tension?”
“I guess not.” He smiled. “If you don’t mind, we will still pray for you.”
“No, I don’t mind, but if you’ve got extra prayers, give them to my wife, okay? If Jesus’s got any miracles up his sleeve, she could use one.”
Before they all exited and piled into their van, I heard the traveling congregation singing, low but resolute.
Religion aside, I love gospel songs, the spiritual melodies, the warmth of the voices. I could enjoy a hundred different versions of Just a Closer Walk with Thee and still sit through one more. What the reverend would not understand is that feeling it does not equate to believing it. My love for gospel songs hooked into mysterious territory in my soul. It did not incline me toward Christianity.
“You are a crazy man,” Ginny informed me, not for the first time, when the traveling church was going in reverse out of our driveway, turning with a little hitch into the road.
It was warm, late spring, as it was when my father died. A memory popped up of walking from the small, white church to a dirt road curling toward the cemetery. Beside me was my oldest brother, Mark. I curled my arm over his shoulder, and I was thinking how satisfied Dad would have been to be sitting at home, watching the Mets on TV, one more day.
“Crazy for you,” I reminded Ginny.
Four decades were shared, and she always knew I loved her.
“Lucky me,” she whispered, smiling, tired now.
She was so sick with cancer and all the drugs and, we both knew, close to the end that day, a cry stalls in my throat every time I wander back to being there.
The mourning has to stop somewhere. And then, I have the craziest thought… What would I give to have some of our years back, to live them again and not to fail her as I did so many times…?
“Pete’s a frigging tomcat,” my sister-in-law Gail hissed at Ginny after we were married only a few years. “Guys like him never change.”
Ginny shared this conversation with me, a few days later. Gail wanted her to kick what she called my “sorry ass” out.
“Gail’s full of shit,” I shot back. “I love you. Maybe I’m not the best man in the world, but I’m not the worst either.”
“I know,” Ginny said.
She always gave me more clearance than I earned.
What, I asked myself, did people expect from a seventeen year old who got married with a firestorm of wild oats still burning in his veins, whose dreams weren’t simply put on hold but were, instead, kicked aside like useless excess? My infidelity issues were legendary — and by legendary, I mean exaggerated out of all proportion — but I always came home to the bed I shared with Ginny. There were days, years, when I felt empty, that my days were repetitive marches down a series of monotonous corridors, but I still came home. I came home because she waited, steady with assurance that, one day, the lights would blink on again and fresh air would flush out the emptiness.
What I wish is that I hadn’t wasted so many of those days resolving the civil war inside me and had, instead, made the better use of the time I had with her, but let’s be honest here. Reverse perspective is bullshit. Any man can look back at his life and beat himself up over his fuckups. If he’s lead any kind of a life, he’ll have plenty to work with. The trouble is, mistakes never look like fuckups they are while the crimes are being committed. They look like possible trees in the surging jungle where you search for yourself.
When did we start oversimplifying our understanding of ourselves? Somewhere during the march into modern times, we began fitting ourselves into role models and stereotypes, freakish to outsiders. Even the concepts are insulting.
Here I am, my insulated boots sinking into soil softened as south winds blew winter away, a hundred trillion or so cells in collaboration as intricate as the stars, building, healing, cooperating to be a vessel for all that transpires behind my eyes. Complexity beyond comprehension, and deep into my seventh decade — how could the capsules of modern culture begin to describe me? Or anyone else?
And yet, it’s the kind of story we all buy into.
Once Jerry, Molly and Brent were adults themselves and out of our house, Ginny and I sat with coffee after supper and talked. Forty years together, watching nature, our sparse neighborhood, our family, our friends, our nation rewarded us with mountains of material to kick around. When she was angry with me or annoyed in general, Ginny accused me of making speeches, of thinking I was superior, a know-it-all who wouldn’t shut up. Long marriages afford us the best and the worst estimations of each other. But mostly, we kept things between us in balance.
“I’ve always had the same problem,” I told her. “It never really goes away.”
She was in bed most of the time by now. As long as it was only her and me, she didn’t wear her unconvincing wig. She didn’t seem to be in any discomfort, although she must have been, her body a battle zone of drugs and disease, too many muscles idled too long, joints stiffening.
“You mean, like, that you don’t believe in anything…?” she offered.
“Ginny, I believe in everything. There’s a difference.”
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have guessed. So, what’s the big problem?”
I hated telling her this.
“When I look back, it’s so clear to me that I’ve never gotten far away from being such a loner. It’s like I’m out here by myself. I can’t get away from it. It’s hard to explain. We’ve been together so long, and the kids… Why they moved so far away…?”
“If you were young, starting out, would you want to raise a family here?”
“Well, I did, didn’t I?”
“Things were different then… For one thing, we didn’t have a choice,” Ginny reminded me of the obvious. “We had babies right away and never any extra money, but I’ve been thinking, if we did, we would have moved, long ago, maybe to someplace warm with better jobs.”
It was a characteristic of my being a loner that the topic had a greasiness about it. It just slipped right out of the grasp of this and every other conversation, as if God preferred it not be discussed.
Walking across the field, this spring morning, a little breeze chasing the sun… A room not far from here was where I wrapped my arms around Ginny after we got into bed on the evening of the day we got married. She was rich and warm and pregnant, and I can still feel how wonderful it was to be joined, even after years of physical changes between us.
That old house was now as torn down as Hollywood. The land where it stood had fallen into waste. If you didn’t know what had once stood there, you’d pass by without a blink.
It had been a tense, disorderly day, emotions misfiring and connecting in every direction. Our parents, mostly Ginny’s two dominating my one, devoted the day to moving us around like chess pieces confined to a board with a rigid outline, from unsteady vows before a small crowd to getting our license witnessed by my brother and her sister and on to a dinner her mother prepared, just the immediates invited and really not enough room for them. My immediates were my father, my sister, one brother and his wife; hers, a full set of parents, a grandmother and a swarm of brothers and sisters dispatched with trays to the living room while the rest of us bunched up in the kitchen like dried fruit.
The new in-laws bubbled with courtesies rarely taken down from the shelves. Through nods and tiny smirks, Ginny and I conspired to stay out of their way. Wedged in at the table, she whispered that she felt sick all day, from nerves mostly, but also from the rearrangement of everything her body was used to doing.
“Should we let your mother know?” Ginny had asked while we were waiting for enough people to show up at the church to get the ceremony rolling.
“Someday, maybe,” I answered from the remotest corner of my thoughts.
Another two years would pass before they met, and that only happened because Mom snapped the tether holding her to the middle class in California.
Although our families celebrated Ginny and me, our marriage, which I doubt any of them thought would last, I couldn’t wait for all that to go away. Ginny and I had our own bedroom set aside upstairs, and I just wanted to be with her there, shaking free of all this phoniness. They were not in spirit with us. They had no idea what our love was like.
Give Tim, the least clueless in the congress of in-laws, credit for proposing a toast to Ginny and me — we had Pepsis — that eased my family into a graceful exit.
That night, undressing together without caution for the first time, awkwardly, and putting on pajamas, my new wife and I were too exhausted to talk about the border we crossed. We were now, legally and forever, family. Uncertainty about everything else spilled out across our bedroom like a crossword puzzle, pieces that might end up representing almost anything.
Ginny slept on her side, her swollen abdomen still unbelievable. She fell asleep instantly. Through thick and thin, she never lost that ability. She was, all her life, what we would later call “centered.” I laid on my back and looked toward the ceiling. It was pitch black. I was not quite eighteen, but I had a claim on a sizable collection of crazy acts bulking up my story to date. I had never once felt so awash, so completely taken by the tides in a sea I believed, just yesterday, I knew how to swim.
Our first year, everything went fast, as if some manual demanded that, useless or not, each detail must be worked through without engaging much of your brain. You blinked, it was next week.
Weekday mornings, I got behind the wheel of Ginny’s mother’s car and drove the old Indian trail winding across the county to Windsor. I still had to finish high school. To speed up the process, I’d persuaded my teachers to give me credit for classes I never took but for which I could pass the final exams as proof of competence. None of them had to do it, but all of them did. Most knew my story. I was the only kid in school with a wedding ring. And they were kind and flexible, mostly in ways not possible today.
One teacher, Mr. Kurkle, who’d once taken time to carefully show me how to navigate the twists and turns in E. E. Cummings’s beautiful and funny poetry, took me aside.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “Whatever else happens, all the responsibilities you got yourself into, make sure you take time for what matters to you.”
I thought he was talking about writing, but later, I knew it was more. You can get lost within yourself, and for some of us, there are no roadmaps, which I had yet to learn.
Afternoons, I drove back across the county to anarchy, too many people in one house, too many of them radically unstable or halfway drunk.
“And I thought my family was fucked up,” I kidded Ginny.
“Well, they are,” she jabbed back.
We were cuddling in bed. It was early autumn, chilly enough to make us shiver at night, not chilly enough to get Ginny’s father to crank up the heating monster occupying a corner of the living room downstairs, even with his pregnant, now sixteen year old daughter in residence.
“Should we say something about we’re freezing in here?” I asked.
“You better not. I’m pretty sure he’s still mad at you. But I will, if I catch him in a good mood.”
“He’s still mad at me?”
“Look what you did…”
She took my hand and patted it on her belly.
We celebrated our first anniversary with Jerry drooling like he was training for an Olympic event on Ginny’s lap. Ginny sipped her first public beer with her parents looking on. Her mother, who had forgiven me temporarily, cooked steaks, and we made opaque jokes about the situation in which we found ourselves boxed, my father-in-law observing as much as anything, his arms folded across his chest. Ginny’s brothers and sisters rioted in the living room, television blaring…
Ginny and I wrapped up Jerry and took the first opportunity that came around to move out. We didn’t go far, just across the untrained yard to the trailer where Ginny used to babysit and make clandestine telephone calls to me in what now seemed the good old days. The family living there moved up to shelter that was not on wheels, and we got the place, including furnishings, for a song, which was considerably more than it was worth. But it got us off to a good start. Young couples later recall their struggles like this: “We didn’t have much, but at least we had each other.” For Ginny and me, there was truth in it. We had each other — and Jerry.
“You’re a gas, kiddo,” I used to tell him.
He didn’t understand a word yet, but he got it.
Among many things I never had time to anticipate before my sudden adulthood, the sweetest was how much I enjoyed being a father. Holding Jerry in my arms the first time… Even wrapped up like an Eskimo when a nurse carried him out from the delivery room, he felt weightless.
Gail, who didn’t hate me yet and had hung out with me all night, smoking and pacing in the maternity wing lounge, asked for a turn.
“Oh my God,” she said. “He really doesn’t weigh anything…”
“Over seven pounds,” the nurse reported through her mask, “pretty close to normal, and look at his color. He’s going to be the healthiest baby in town.”
The nurse’s prediction turned out to be right on. Other than the usual routine of colds and flus, Jerry breezed through childhood without ill health ever holding him back. It was part of what made him confident, a leader who let everyone else share his belief that nothing of consequence could ever go too far wrong.
Years later, I lost him, of course. I don’t mean that in a bad way. We lose our children in the instant in which we notice they have slipped out of childhood. We can hang on, they can hang on, but the thrill of being a kid’s father is, by then, the stuff of memories. Pride comes next, but that belongs to them.
Ginny was always better with our children, probably because her raucous family stayed together long enough to learn to love each other naturally while mine fumbled and bumbled along like we were escaping quicksand. Mine learned to survive, and hers learned to love. This, as I recall it today, was the basis for what made Ginny and me so unalike, of what made it possible for her to hang in there while I spent so much energy maintaining balance, half in and half out.
Categories: Sample Chapters