(Welcome to week two of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapter One, we highly recommend doing so before jumping forward to Chapter Two. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. Shit gets real after the jump.)
Today, we have opened the iron gates of our estate.
The Lees of Rosemont are having a good, old-fashioned yard sale.
My wife Laura has been planning the event for weeks. There are laminated flyers announcing it on every storefront, telephone pole and bulletin board in town.
This is what is written on the flyers:
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 19TH
YARD SALE! 1346 WOODED WAY
BRING THE FAMILY! ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE KIDS
Beneath the message is a hand-drawn picture of a mother and daughter. The mother is holding the daughter’s hand. The daughter is holding balloons. Both are smiling.
Yard sales = fun.
My wife has rented a tent for the occasion. The tent spans the entire length of our front lawn. There is no escaping it. An industrial-size moonbounce has taken over our driveway. There’s a team of caterers setting up in front of our garage. In fact, the only thing missing from our good, old-fashioned yard sale is a steady stream of shoppers.
It turns out wealthy people rarely buy their knickknacks second-hand.
I do not bother to argue this point with my wife. Nor do I bother to argue the point that our costs for this event will far outweigh any revenue we might generate. Why would I? Laura and I both know this yard sale has nothing to do with turning a profit, or even needing to turn a profit, for that matter. This yard sale is nothing more than a bargain-basement clearance – a fire sale during which all the comic books, DVDs, tech gadgets and parlor games I’ve accumulated over the years are set to be auctioned off to the lowest bidder.
Laura has drawn a clear dividing line on the display tables between her items and mine. Among the items on my side is a stack of board games, piled one on top of the other, like a decade-long metaphor for our marriage – Risk, LIFE, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Operation, Chess, Bonkers … You name it.
There is a promotional slogan stenciled on the side panel of one of the game boxes that reads, “You can be a winner at the game of LIFE!”
Fat chance, I think to myself.
We do not play board games in the Lee household … at least not anymore. Laura established that rule five years ago. She claims when she and I play board games together, my gloating borders on ridicule, which is a poor example to set for our kids.
I disagree with Laura’s assessment, but I do not dispute it, much like I do not dispute the fact that she has decided to lay out several pairs of my boxer shorts today. The shorts are arranged in a bright spectrum of colors and patterns, starched and stiff, fanning out across the display table like a series of wallpaper swatches.
Laura knows no one is going to purchase used underwear. I know no one is going to purchase used underwear. And I’m reasonably sure our kids know no one is going to purchase used underwear.
Still, there they sit – 14 pairs of 100% cotton boxers, gathering pollen.
This is Laura Lee’s passive-aggressive way of establishing herself as the alpha dog in our relationship
I realize that that – in turn – makes me Laura Lee’s bitch.
It is Laura’s hope the neighbors will drop by in droves to pay thrift-store prices for faded scarves and shawls and sweaters she hasn’t worn in years. It is also her hope that none of the items on my side of the tent will warrant anything more than a curious glance.
When the yard sale is over, Laura will box up the leftovers and donate them to charity. And she’ll take extreme pride in reminding me her useless trinkets have greater resale value than my lifelong treasures. In the days that follow, the two of us will lie to one another about what a tremendous success the event was.
For a time, Laura will be happy, which – in turn – means I will be happy also.
Or, at the very least, I will be slightly less sad.
It’s all relative these days.
Monty Miggs is a lifelong friend. He is 35, heterosexual and single. He has a receding hair line and a singed, salt-and-pepper beard. He is tan and sweaty, with hairy arms and thick-rimmed glasses. He is 6’2, broad and powerful – a man of considerable presence.
Monty Miggs is not Jewish, but he looks (and acts) as if he should be.
Miggs remains mostly unaffected by the initial wave of divorce which has recently cropped up within our immediate circle of friends. Miggs does not take sides, nor does he condemn either party for its actions. Miggs refuses to buy into the notion that when two people divorce, friends should be divvied up like so many pieces of lawn furniture.
Miggs does not believe in marriage. He considers it a silly, antiquated notion, like organized religion or mail-in rebates. In grad school, Miggs wrote a dissertation about love entitled “The Law of Conservation of Emotion,” in which he referred to marriage as “a constant, ever-evolving state of predivorce, in which a couple’s fierce devotion to each other slowly devolves into a boiling, desperate cauldron of hurt and resentment.”
Laura and I have been predivorced for 12 years now.
Based on those 12 years, I can tell you there is one thing Monty Miggs was absolutely right about: Marriage does not get any easier with time … quite the opposite, in fact.
Miggs is the head of dream research at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s written three books on the subject of dream psychology for Penguin Press – a division of RandomHouse. One of those books became an “academic best seller,” which means dozens of college campuses (campi?) made it a required text for Psychology majors.
Miggs is also a successful therapist, which means he is both wildly insightful and hopelessly dysfunctional. Miggs has a wooden placard on his desk that reads: “I am capable of solving everyone’s problems but my own.”
Most of Miggs’ patients fail to see the irony.
I am not one of Monty Miggs’ patients, but he treats me as if I should be.
I do not take it personally. Miggs treats everyone that way.
Why am I explaining all of this, you might ask?
Mostly because Monty Miggs has just ducked his head under the oversized circus tent erected on our front lawn. He is walking toward me with a six-pack of beer in his hand.
Context is everything, my friend.
Without it, all is lost.
“Welcome to the big top,” I say, looking up at Miggs from my lawn chair.
“Big top?” Migg says, laughing. “I guess that makes you the ringmaster.”
“Oh no,” I say, motioning toward Laura with my chin. “The ringmaster’s over by the buffet table, chatting up the preacher.”
It’s true. Laura is on the far edge of the lawn, talking to Father Frank, our local pastor.
Laura is laughing, loud and often.
“Look at her go,” Miggs says, pointing at Laura with an unlit cigar. “Have you ever heard a priest say anything that funny?”
“Of course not,” I say, as I crack open a beer. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything that funny.”
“You should’ve had her sign a prenup,” Miggs says, shaking his head.
“More like a non-compete,” I say, watching Laura doubled over in laughter, one hand on Father Frank’s arm. “But enough about that. What brings you all the way out here on a Saturday afternoon?”
“I was actually on my way over to Wanamaker’s to pick up some underwear,” Miggs says, referencing the display table with my boxer shorts on it. “But it looks like you’ve got me covered.”
“Wanamaker’s?” I say, raising both eyebrows. “Funny. But it still doesn’t explain what you’re doing here.”
“Nice get-up,” Miggs says, ignoring the question a second time.
I am wearing a Phillies cap with blue jeans and a plaid button-down, carelessly flung open to reveal a black T-shirt with the words “MANIC DEPRESSIVES HAVE MORE FUN” written on it in big block letters.
I am regressing. Miggs recognizes this because he is a therapist, who is regressing at a much more rapid pace than I am.
Miggs dates his patients. Miggs dates his students. Miggs goes to frat parties, during which he preys on unwitting psych majors who are as emotionally fucked up as he is.
Psych majors view Monty Miggs as a mentor.
Monty Miggs views psych majors in much the same way a poodle views a warm leg.
Monty Miggs is a flawed human being, wrought with contradiction.
We are all flawed human beings, wrought with contradiction.
The difference is, Montgomery Miggs has neither the resolve nor the remorse to control his lurid impulses. He should have filed for moral bankruptcy years ago.
“I was having lunch over at Murray’s,” Miggs says, ending the stalemate,
“and I noticed a sign for the yard sale in the front window. I figured I’d stop
by and say hi.”
Laura looks over, smiles and waves to Monty Miggs.
Miggs waves back.
Laura hates Miggs. She thinks he’s a bad influence. And she’s right.
Miggs is single. He is unattached. And he equates a man’s stature with the quality and quantity of women that man has slept with.
Whenever Miggs and I plan a night out together, Laura is sure to schedule some type of post-dawn activity the following morning. It could be a hair appointment or a nail appointment or a pole-dancing party in our pantry, for all it matters. The bottom line is, I’ll need to be awake and alert shortly after sunrise to keep an eye on the kids.
If I object, Laura will remind me that she’s the one who’s forced to stay at home with Tommy and Sara on a Saturday night while I’m out “having [my] good time.” And she is right, every time, despite the fact I consistently offer to hire a babysitter, so Laura can go out and have her good time as well.
“A babysitter?” Laura will say. “Is that your answer for everything?”
A babysitter is not my answer for everything.
But that’s not the point, and we both know it. The point is Laura and I are in constant competition with one another, and Laura feels the need to maintain a slight lead at all times. It’s a dynamic we do not discuss in our household, much like board games or pedophile priests or the fact that I prefer to air dry after I get out of the shower.
Predivorce brings out the best in everyone.
“Is it safe to assume if you’re helping with the yard sale all afternoon, you might be able to wiggle free for a couple of hours tonight?” Miggs asks.
“It’s possible,” I say, looking over at Laura. “What did you have in mind?”
“Nothing major,” Miggs says. “Just a beer or two, maybe shoot some pool.”
It’s clear now – Monty Miggs has an agenda. And while I cannot put my finger on exactly what that agenda is, he’s piqued my curiosity enough that I’m willing to see where it leads.
I agree to meet Miggs at The Grog in Bryn Mawr around 9 PM.
Then I go back to watching my wife chat up the funniest preacher on the planet.
“Laura and I have been seeing each other.”
This is what Monty Miggs tells me, 30 minutes after I arrive at the Grog – a corner bar on Lancaster Avenue with wax polish on the floor and framed news clippings on the walls.
“Whoa. Wait a minute,” I say, placing my beer on the counter. “Laura? As in yard-sale Laura? My Laura?”
“The same,” Miggs says, confirming my suspicions.
Miggs is running his index finger along the lip of his glass slowly, gauging my reaction before he determines how to proceed.
“It’s been going on for about three months now,” Miggs continues. “Once, maybe twice a week. I realize this must come as a surpri …”
“You smug fuck,” I say, still trying to process what I’ve just been told.
“Look, before you say a series of mean, hurtful things, I want you to consider something,” Miggs says.
“I’m considering bashing this fucking glass over your head,” I say. “That’s what I’m considering.”
“Of course,” Miggs says. “That’s a natural reaction.”
“Don’t you fucking rationalize with me,” I say, looking around the bar to see if anyone else has picked up on our conversation. No one has.
“Fair enough,” Miggs says, lowering his voice. “But think on this: I am handing you indisputable grounds for divorce right now, and I’m more than willing to testify in open court about everything I’m telling you. I am handing you the keys to your birdcage, my friend. And I’m doing it because you deserve to know the truth.”
“I deserve to know the truth?” I say, loud enough for the regulars at the end of the bar to hear. Then again a second time – voice hushed, tone vicious, “I deserve to know the truth? After what … three months of you lying to my face? You and Laura, the two people I should be able to trust more than anyone else on this planet. You mean to sit there and tell me the two of you have been fucking each other on a regular basis? I mean, how could that even be? Laura hates you.”
“Apparently not,” Miggs says.
“She hates you more than anyone I know,” I say.
“I think she’s starting to come around,” Miggs says.
“She’s wished cancer upon you … twice,” I say.
“Her actions would suggest otherwise,” he says.
“And you have the chutzpah to call me down here, feed me blended whiskey and paint yourself a martyr?” I say. “Give me a fucking break.”
“You’re upset,” Miggs says.
“No, I’m not up-set,” I say. “Upset is missing your exit on the turnpike. Upset is burning a casserole. What I am is homicidally fucking pissed. I’m like Jesus-in-the-marketplace pissed.”
“I want you to know that’s completely normal, given the circumstances,” Miggs says.
“Cut the bullshit,” I say. “Just bottom line it: What’s the end game here?”
“We’ve fallen in love,” Miggs says. “We want to be together.”
“Define ‘together’,” I say.
“We’d like to move in together, eventually,” Miggs says. “You know, once the dust settles, of course. And, assuming things continue to go well, we’d like to build a life together … with your blessing, of course.”
“You mean get married?” I say.
“I mean, well, yes … very possibly, I suppose,” Miggs says.
“To my wife?” I say.
“That’s correct,” he says.
“You don’t even believe in marriage,” I say.
“I didn’t … until I met Laura,” he says.
“You met Laura 13 years ago,” I say.
“You know what I mean,” Miggs says.
“So the whole thing about testifying in open court is really just a way for the two of you to expedite the process,” I say.
“At this point Laura and I agree the most important thing for everyone involved is to get this thing out in the open and determine what the best course of action is moving forward,” Miggs says.
“How exactly would that be the best thing for me and my kids?” I say.
“It’s the truth,” Miggs says. “Is perpetuating a lie really going to do them any good in the long run?”
“It’s worked up until now,” I say.
“Let’s be honest,” Miggs says. “You and Laura haven’t been happy for years. ‘Marriage equals prison’ you tell me. ‘I can’t find the time to write anymore,’ you tell me. ‘It’s all post script from here on in,’ you tell me. ‘It’s just a long, slow march toward death …’”
“Jesus,” I say, pounding my fist on the bar. “What husband doesn’t say things like that from time to time? More to the point, explain to me what parallel universe you’re living in where that type of statement gives you the right to violate my wife?”
“I understand your frustration,” Miggs says. “In time, this will all work out for the best. You’ll see. In the meantime, ask yourself a question, Bobby: When was the last time you wrote something you were proud of? I mean, really proud of … even something minor?”
“I’m working on something right now,” I say, straightening my posture.
“What is it?” Miggs says, calling my bluff.
“A children’s book for adults,” I say.
“A children’s book for adults?” Miggs says.
“That’s right,” I say.
“Do you have a working title?” he says.
“Where the Mild Things Are,” I say.
This is a lie. I know it’s a lie. Miggs knows it’s a lie. But I’m drunk and I’m desperate and I refuse to let Monty Miggs have his moment, so I pass my statement off as fact and gesture to the bartender for another shot.
Then I lock eyes with Miggs and engage him in the most awkward stare of my entire life.
“I’ve got to go,” Miggs says, after several seconds have passed.
“Wife waiting up?” I say.
Miggs ignores the comment. He stands up and turns to leave.
He walks toward the front door.
“Tell her I’m not coming home tonight,” I call behind him.
“Seriously?” Miggs asks, turning back to face me.
“Seriously,” I say, eyes fixed straight ahead.
I drink my shot. I stare at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
Perhaps it’s the whiskey or the anger or the way the shadows hit my face, but for a moment, I’m certain I don’t know the person staring back at me at all. My cheeks look hollow and pale. My hair’s a nappy mess. I am not me. I am someone else’ me. And someone else’s me is staring back at me – soused to the gills, feeling both empty and ashamed.
I am a complete shambles.
I am woe, and woe is me.
I stay at The Grog for another 30 minutes. I spend the bulk of that time pondering how the affair between Miggs and Laura actually began. I ponder why on earth I never thought to ask Miggs about that when he was sitting right here next to me.
I buy a six-pack of beer. I call for a cab. I ask the cabbie to drive along Old Gulph Road, which runs behind the western border of our property. When the cab reaches the edge of my estate, I get out and walk along a tree-lined path that leads to the back yard. I place the brown bag full of beer on a six-foot ledge. I scale the stone wall. I slide over and down the other side, landing ass first on a patch of grass and pine needles.
I take a seat amidst the brush. I open a beer.
Through the back bay windows of our house, I can see Laura and Miggs sitting next to each other at the dining room table. Laura is crying. Miggs is holding her hand in his, wiping her tears with a napkin.
My son Tommy wanders into the dining room.
I can only imagine what he’s asking: “Where’s dad? When is he coming home? Why is Uncle Monty here so late? Why are you crying?” Good questions, I think – the type of questions that deserve honest answers. Unfortunately, Tommy won’t get any honest answers tonight. He’ll get grown-up answers – the kind that only serve to make a kid more skeptical about the world at large … The kind that grown-ups offer when there’s no rational excuse for their behavior.
I am opening my third Bass Ale when Tommy leaves the dining room, presumably on his way to bed. Thirty seconds later, I see the overhead light in his bedroom go on, then flicker out just as quickly.
The silence in our backyard feels cold and unsettling.
I reach into my pocket. I pull out my iPod. I scroll past the Ls and the Ms, until I reach the Ns. For the next hour, Neil Young and I will drown out the silence together.
1 AM. Laura and Miggs leave the dining room, walking hand-in-hand. A few minutes later, I hear the fluid hum of Miggs’ Audi, followed by the swivel of headlights across our backyard. Then darkness.
Monty Miggs is gone.
I sit and I drink and I watch as Laura wanders back into the dining room alone. She dims the first-floor lights. She disappears up the revolving stairs. A crack of light appears in both of the kids’ bedroom windows as Laura pokes her head inside to make sure they’re asleep.
I am numb to it now – all of the pain and anger and desperation I should be feeling.
It will undoubtedly come rushing back tomorrow afternoon, nine times more devastating until my hangover passes. But right now, all I can focus on is how I came to be here – alone in the darkness, with no real home or family to call my very own.
The breeze wraps itself around me as Laura appears silhouetted and still, standing at our bedroom window, her head pressed up against the glass.
I sit and I drink and I watch from the brush until she recedes into the darkness.
Then I sit and I drink and I watch from the brush some more, the persistent twang of Neil Young’s voice still ringing in my ears:
Lover, there will be another one,
Who’ll hover over you, beneath the sun.
Tomorrow, see the things that never come
When you see me fly away without you,
Shadow on the things you know.
Feathers fall around you,
And show you the way to go.
It’s over. It’s over.
©Copyright Bob Hill