Making a Point
The band played a break-up song for the bride and groom’s dance, but halfway through, the best man—who had been romantically involved with the bride in college and had remained subject to unbidden recollections of her aggressive and insatiable desire—made them stop. The singer announced the bride and groom; they gave a little bow, and as the band launched into another, more innocuous number, the best man bellied up, a bit shakily, to the bar at the edge of the tent.
The bartender pulled a beer bottle from the ice. “Same again?”
The best man nodded. He was drinking thirstily when one of the ushers sidled up next to him. “Dude, that was really low rent. Dan Halloway says you threatened him.”
The best man regarded him from a great distance, one of the walking wounded. “I threatened him? Really? I told him to stop playing that song, or else. You’re the lawyer; do you think that’s actionable?”
The usher shrugged. “The point is, you made him feel unappreciated. I mean, how does that contribute to the festive atmosphere?”
“How does playing ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ for the bride and groom’s first dance?”
The usher shrugged. “They had a specific request; Halloway showed me the note. Anyway, that’s their freaking signature song—they play it at every gig. You know that.”
“This isn’t a gig, it’s a wedding. I promise you Scotty and Marilyn didn’t request that song. Nobody who cares about them would have.” The best man poked a finger into the usher’s chest. “Did you?”
“Get real, Dude. It was probably her old man. He’s always hated Scotty. But that’s not the point, is it?”
“I don’t know,” the best man said. “You’re the one making a point. I’m just having a quiet beer.”
“Okay. Whatever.” The usher pushed away from the bar. He patted his friend condescendingly on the shoulder and eased off across the grass, scanning the crowd.
The best man, however, didn’t notice the usher’s condescension. At the mention of the bride’s father, he had been almost physically transported to another time and place, a waking reverie that did nothing to calm his nerves.
Green Hills of Ithaca
In the living room, the one object so arresting it seemed to preclude Brett’s noticing anything else was the head of a lion on the wall above the mantel. The taxidermist had done an amazing job: he’d created such a natural and realistic look of ferocity that the stuffed head, its glass eyes, seemed actually to radiate hostility and bloodlust and rage. It was at once fascinating and frightening, and Brett, waiting awkwardly for his girlfriend to finish dressing for their date, was so taken with it, or taken aback by it, that he didn’t hear Marilyn’s father enter the room.
“I made rather a bad shot on that one,” Mr. McEgan said loudly, behind him. Brett started, and immediately resented both his own fallibility and his girlfriend’s father’s rough bluster.
Mr. McEgan came and stood beside him, affecting not to notice Brett’s discomfiture. “I hit him high, and too far back. Severed his spine and left him thrashing in the grass.”
Brett, who was learning such tricks at Bowdoin, adopted a coolness of manner he had no legitimate claim to. “And how did you administer the coup de grâce?”
Mr. McEgan shook his head. “I didn’t, you see. Not right away. The brute lay there crippled and raging, trying to launch himself forward and tear me to bits.”
“Makes sense,” Brett said, boldly leaving Mr. McEgan to decide whether he meant it made sense that someone would want to kill him.
“Indeed it does, Brett my boy. And you know, I respected that dying lion. I admired it. Doomed but defiant, singleminded in his determination to take his killer with him to the grave. That’s when I decided that I would eat his heart. To take his power, you know. To become a lion.”
“I see,” said Brett, who didn’t.
“I went up quite close to him and stood watching. He must have been in agony, of course, but he never let it show. All I saw, or felt, was his overwhelming need to kill me and his frustration at being unable to do so.” Mr. McEgan paused. “It was quite terrible. Quite beautiful. It was,” he searched for a word. “Sublime.”
Brett swallowed, as quietly as he was able.
Mr. McEgan seemed not to notice. “Eventually, one of the native bearers came up to me carrying an assegai. He understood; the good ones always do. So he came forward and gave me his spear, and I stabbed the beast through the throat. And as it raged, and struggled to kill me, and roared out the last of its life, it sprayed me with flecks of bloody foam.”
Mr. McEgan fell silent, and Brett found himself wishing for a cigarette he wouldn’t have known how to smoke.
“You know,” Mr. McEgan said, startling Brett for a second time, “I fell in love with that lion. And yet I stood a long time watching him suffer—and then I cut his throat. Can you imagine what might happen to a person I didn’t much like or admire—someone who saw fit to threaten my family or take advantage of one of my girls?”
Not much later, heading north along the lake past vineyards and cornfields, to a clandestine party in someone’s parents’ summer cottage, Marilyn remarked that Brett seemed unusually quiet, and asked if he’d been subjected to the story of her father’s lion.
Brett nodded, relieved that the question had finally been broached. “Is he, like, an anthropologist or something?”
Marilyn laughed. “He’s an insurance actuary. He’s never killed anything in his life.”
Brett took his eyes off the road to stare at her.
“The truth is, that lion was a zoo animal that mauled its keeper and had to be put down. My father bought its stuffed head at a specialty shop in New York.”
“You’re shitting me, right?” Brett had hated the story, but he was trying to make peace with it, and a boyish part of him wanted it to be true.
“No,” Marilyn said. “Daddy was. He can be kind of a jerk that way.”
“Well, I never called him that,” said Brett, who might have if he dared. “He’s just trying to protect you.”
“Yeah,” Marilyn said. “Sure worked for my sister. Thanks, Daddy.”
Up ahead they saw a blue road sign with a tree and a picnic table, and just beyond it, a gravel pullout beside the road and a bit of lawn with a picnic pavilion and a view out across the lake.
“Pull in there for a minute,” Marilyn said.
Brett did, and before he had the car in park he felt her fingers on his zipper.
The bride’s father was unhappy about the events of the day. His daughter was marrying the kind of unctuous putz he’d always tried to keep away from her—a smarmy law student who would spawn a bunch of children and ditch her with them so he could remarry upwards. The bride’s father was sure of this, but no one would listen to him, and he had, in the end, stopped trying to be heard. As a reward, he was now bankrolling the celebration of his baby girl’s leap into the abyss.
He’d had his moment, of course, bribing the band to play his favorite torch song for the doomed couple’s first big dance. But he was robbed of even this cold comfort when the best man (the bride’s former boyfriend and lover, to make matters worse) made a scene with the band and forced them to choose, like Tarryton smokers of old, whether to fight or switch. Of course, kids these days, the band had taken his money and run.
His highball glass was empty. He told his wife, “I want to stretch my legs.” His wife lit up for an instant, anticipating a dance. Then she saw him looking toward the open bar, where the best man stood gazing out at the dancers under the tent with an air of unfocussed agitation. “Don’t you start any trouble,” his wife told him. “This is Marilyn’s day, not yours.”
“Trouble? Me?” The bride’s father forced a smile. “Never.”
His wife hissed, “You watch your step.”
At the bar, he ordered another double scotch, then turned to the best man. “Well, you’re a regular fucking buzzkill, aren’t you, Brett?”
The best man blinked. Recovering, he strove for austerity. “So it was you. Toby thought as much.”
“Toby? Shit, Romeo. What did you think? That’s what counts.”
“I didn’t think. I couldn’t believe it, is all.”
“Uh, huh.” The bride’s father swallowed most of his whisky. “You still have a thing for her.”
“As if.” The best man shook his head, then checked the level of his beer.
“Well, the denial is mutual. She’s probably already wishing it was you she married, instead of that goddamn jackass.” The father gestured with his drink at his new son-in-law, dancing with SuEllyn Winslow, the best man’s current girlfriend, putting his hand on her ass.
They’d checked out the park on the internet, and decided to try fishing there based on the satellite images: a wide creek emptying into the lake, a jetty providing access to deeper water. When they got there, however, they found the place quite crowded: the campground loop packed with RVs, a party tent beside the picnic shelter. The gravel lot was overflowing with cars and trucks. They hesitated a moment in silence. Then the brother spotted an open space near the creekside, and the uncle, looking over from the passenger seat, said, “Jesus. It’s a freaking wedding.”
His nephew, in the backseat, said, “Really?” He sounded disappointed.
“No worries,” the uncle said. “It’s a joyous occasion. They won’t bite.”
His brother glanced at him, perhaps to assess the ratio of irony to earnestness. The uncle’s reputation for sardonic excess had more behind it than his status as the family’s expert fisherman.
They got their rods and tackle from the trunk, then did some reconnaissance, walking down the creek, past the nuptials, to the lakeshore, which, as it turned out, had a swimming area roped off with red, white, and blue plastic floats. The jetty was crowded with people out walking, a golden retriever, an elderly couple fishing from folding chairs.
They walked back and set up between two creekside willows, not far from the picnic shelter.
The nephew, who was thirteen and, like his uncle, knew less about fishing than the minimum necessary, picked up a chartreuse plastic worm and an appropriately enormous hook. “Are these really going to work?”
“Can’t hurt to try,” the uncle said. “Just rig it the way we saw on YouTube, and bump it along the bottom. At least we know what to expect if we stick with worms and bobbers.”
The nephew nodded. “Panfish.”
They spread out along the bank and fished for a while, working around one another to make slow headway back upstream.
Other things being equal, the uncle would have preferred a quieter, more private venue. Joyous occasion notwithstanding, he felt the eyes of the revelers on him, and he couldn’t tune out the rockabilly-inflected band. In the heyday of his fishing life, twenty years earlier, he had found in it quiet harmony and solitude, a needed respite from his then-wife’s humorless puritanical rigidity.
But he made do, and worked on his retrieve: in the slanting afternoon light he watched the bait bumping the bottom, leaping forward, swimming back down. He wouldn’t have said it looked particularly lifelike, but then, he wasn’t a hungry fish.
“What are you catching?”
The uncle turned to face a woman perhaps thirty years old, holding a can of beer—evidently not her first. He said, “Bass, with God’s help.” He paused. “Do you fish?”
The woman’s smile conveyed a kind of world-weary, inebriate irony. “Not for bass. My husband is a big fly fisherman. He wanted me to learn, too.”
“Fly fishing.” The uncle imbued the phrase with the requisite aura of respect. “That’s cool.”
The woman said, “Let’s say, it’s better than the alternative.” She brushed, as if unconsciously, at a small scar on her left cheekbone. “He can be pretty . . . persuasive.”
The uncle knew what to make of this, but not how to respond.
“He’s a dick,” the woman added, unnecessarily. “If he was here? All that?” She waved her beer can vaguely toward the revelers under the tent. “It would be a damn free-for-all.”
“You know, it’s none of my business,” the uncle said, “but— ”
“Why haven’t I dumped him?” She drank some beer. “I have. He just doesn’t know it yet because he’s still in Iraq. I’ll hit him with the papers as soon as he’s done out-processing. Then I think I’ll go on a cruise.”
“A cruise?” The uncle, fifteen years afterwards, and despite the fact that he was happily—enthusiastically—remarried, was still unable to look back on his own admittedly tepid divorce without pangs of outrage and betrayal. He had no sympathy for the wife-beating husband, but this woman’s plan, if that’s what it was, seemed antagonistic and strategically unsound.
“Hell, yes, a cruise. Can you imagine the look on his face?”
“I can,” the uncle said.
“Well, he deserves all that and more.” The woman finished her beer and stood holding the can. “I’d better get on back up there. My baby sister just made the biggest mistake of her life.”
The bride knew exactly what to make of her trouble zipping up the dress, and of her goddamned mood swings. She’d known for a good two weeks, since her second missed period and the furtive EPT. But she’d really known for much longer, since the moment of conception and the arguably monumental lapse of judgment that had precipitated it.
Of course, it was Scotty’s fault, mostly. He’d been such a little bitch lately: all argumentative and irrational and freely admitting (as if Marilyn were somehow to blame) that his heightened stress and agitation had everything to do with the fact that he was about to “put on the ball and chain.”
He’d even confessed, unbelievably, that he feared he wasn’t cut out for monogamy. This had happened at their romantic dating-anniversary dinner at DiNozzo’s, at a bay-window table that looked down across hillside vineyards to a long, lovely stretch of the lake.
Marilyn had stood up, dropped her napkin into her plate of veal, and told him he’d better by God find out. And she’d left him there with the check and no ride, having driven that evening because his rusty Volvo wagon was in the shop with a stuck brake caliper. Even his piece-of-shit vehicle was getting cold feet.
When he didn’t come by her place later to apologize, and didn’t even call, Marilyn dumped all his crap—clothes, condoms, and toiletries, the current Yale Law Review and Field and Stream—into a box, and tossed it out on the porch. Then she wedged a chair under the doorknob (Scotty had a key), opened a bottle of cheap local red, and caught the second half of High Fidelity on cable.
Two days later, having still heard nothing from him, she felt the need to talk to someone close. It was Monday; she’d been at the lab all day, reviewing the latest published research into biological control of Agrilus planipennis, the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, and it was slow going. Dr. Balasubramaniam and Dr. Lam were ignoring her, as usual, (though, also as usual, she did catch Dr. Lam, in passing, trying to peep down the front of her lab coat). The doctors were not people with whom she could discuss things personal.
She stopped at a farm stand on her way home, and thought about calling SuEllyn, her putative maid of honor, while she was out of the car. But, punching the speed-dial, she was struck with the unexpected fear of hearing Scotty’s mellifluous, fickle voice in the background, and she stopped the call.
The farm stand’s proprietress, who knew Marilyn by sight, called out, “We got rhubarb! First of the season. And some really lovely strawberries.”
Marilyn bought some of each, and a couple of frozen pie crusts, and then, not even trying to argue with the inner nagging voice saying this was a terrible idea, she called Brett.
“I just need someone to talk to for an hour,” she told him when he picked up. And then, to set the hook, “The rhubarb is in. I’m making pies.”
The rest, of course, was history. They both must have known from the outset how it would turn out (except for the getting pregnant part, Scotty’s condoms on the front porch as inaccessible as El Dorado), and they both must have known that it would never go any further.
But, oh, my God, what a ride while it lasted!
The maid-of honor had never realized she was the type to steal her best friend’s beau. But then, she’d never given it much thought. When Scotty came in for his usual wash, cut, and dry, late one afternoon a couple of months before the wedding, SuEllyn was struck at once with how freaked out and vulnerable he looked. So when he asked her, once seated and smocked, if he could tell her something in confidence, it turned out that he could: it was the end of a long day, and SuEllyn had the shop to herself.
“Have you ever been serious about anyone?” Scotty asked her, his face as earnest and imploring as a shantytown urchin on a late-night infomercial.
“Honey.” SuEllyn rolled his chair back against the sink. “I’ve been serious about every one.”
Scotty smiled sadly, and then he blurted out his fears: that he was making a huge commitment he’d prove unable, in the end, to honor; that he was not cut out for monogamy, and would end up letting down the one person he cared most for in the world.
SuEllyn smoothed his hair back soothingly. “You’ll be fine,” she told him. “Trust me.” Then she said, “Shoot, I need a new thing of shampoo. Don’t go away.” And she hurried back to the stock room, where she reached up inside her shirt and removed her bra.
She didn’t do much else different that afternoon. She acted, perhaps, a bit more solicitous than usual, given Scotty’s vulnerable state, and was perhaps just a touch more physical, smoothing back his hair more often than needed, and leaning her chest in, once or twice, against an ear. But what she told him was, “Don’t worry, Scotty. You’ll work it out. You two are going to be awesome together.” And what he said back was, “Yeah, I guess. Thanks for letting me vent.”
She was testing him, basically, in that old-school, you’re-at-a-crossroads, sort of way. If he found himself tempted to stray, he might consider this afternoon and wonder if she was amenable to such a project. And if he made an escalating move, she’d have to decide how far she was willing to go, and how hard to make him work for it.
Of course, a few weeks later they were fully into the affair. She was getting a real feel for how anxiety—guilt and the incessant fear of discovery—ramped up the adrenaline and the arousal. She’d begun pushing past the limits of her experience into new ways to keep him guessing, to keep enticing him back for more, and she was thrilled that he had taken, and kept taking, the bait. If it came to pass that Scotty dumped Marilyn (or vice versa), and she ditched Brett, and she and Scotty ended up together, well, it didn’t hurt that Scotty was good looking and energetic, or that his family had piles and piles of money. If they didn’t end up together, well, that was okay too.
Scotty, for his part, never told SuEllyn just how delighted he was at the superlative efficacy of his opening, sad-faced gambit, or that he hadn’t even wanted a haircut that day.
Catch and Release
The nephew, anticipating glorious things, had brought his mother’s digital camera to shoot videos of the fish they caught and released. When the fish finally convinced him, with their persistent refusal to bite, that there was something wrong with the bait, with the fish themselves, or with the way he was trying to bring the two parties together, he concluded that there wasn’t much chance he’d be able to fix whatever was wrong. He laid his rod on the grass, got out the camera, and started making short videorecordings of the things in his immediate environment: the weedy water, the dragonflies on the cattails, the talkative hole in the toe of his sneaker. Out in the lot behind him, he spotted a truck with a “Come the Rapture” bumper sticker and an empty gun rack. Experimenting, he pushed the zoom while filming; its twenty-power magnification put him right on top of the mud-crusted trailer hitch.
This impressed him, and he realized that with the zoom, this camera provided opportunities for amusement that their misguided foray into bass-fishing could only fail cataclysmically to deliver.
Spying on things distant (as he conceived it) was engaging and strangely empowering. For a while he watched a kingfisher on a branch across the creek, preening with its spearpoint bill. Then a small woody knob poking up from the shallow water, once properly magnified, became the head of a painted turtle whose dark shell showed vague and wavy through the water’s reflective sheen. A heron flapped into view and, as the nephew watched, lit in the top of a bare, barkless tree, and took a dump. The nephew caught it all on disk.
This was far better than fishing without hope.
He’d been ignoring the wedding party more successfully than his uncle, who’d gotten buttonholed by a loose-jointed and unsteady woman in a blue dress, and had just minutes ago resumed fishing. Still, when a collective shout of surprise came to him from the tent, followed by the singer interrupting his own campy rendition of “Crazy” with a startled, “Whoa! Hey, now!” the nephew looked that way.
What he saw was fantastic; it would make him famous, if he could manage to record it without getting himself killed. He pressed and held the shutter button and crept, recording, to the cover of a nearby willow.
What he’d missed, apparently, was the first wild punch: the bride unloading on a woman in peach-colored satin, dropping her on the dance-floor grass. (“That was probably the maid of honor,” his mother would tell him later, capitalizing on this unexpected opportunity to advance her son’s cultural education). In any case, the recording began with reactions: shocked faces of paralyzed onlookers, the bride, in profile, raging at her fallen friend. Then one of the (ushers) unfroze himself and hurried to help the victim, and the woman in the blue dress caught the bride in a kind of bear-hug from behind.
This was, at least tactically, a mistake, although it made awesome video. The bride began thrashing back and forth like a washing-machine agitator with fists. The woman in blue lost her grip, and then her balance, and then went cartwheeling backwards, blood gushing from her nose.
When the (groom) rushed over, the bride kicked him in the balls. He folded in on himself like a jackknife, drawn up around the point of impact, and the bride sent him to the ground with a slash of nails across his face.
The nephew could scarcely contain himself: you could live a whole lifetime and never see anything so freaking epic.
He had decided it was over, and was about to stop recording, when the woman in blue lurched back into the frame with one bare foot and a shoe in her hand. She charged at the bride, again from behind, and smacked her sister (as the uncle would tell him later) with the shoe heel, hard, just above the ear. The bride staggered forward, into the arms of the hapless (best man). He passed her immediately to an old guy—surely her father—who was, apart from the nephew himself, the only person present who seemed really to be enjoying the fracas.
The bride’s mother joined the father, and together they got the bride seated woozily at one of the picnic tables in the pavilion beside the party tent. The father patted the bride reassuringly on the shoulder, then straightened up; he faced his wife, and she slapped him so hard he spun a full three-sixty. When he got his feet back under him he was laughing, then laughing harder, and finally doubled over, holding his sides. The bride’s mother turned on a heel and walked away, and the nephew, still recording everything, made a note to himself to ask his dad and uncle to please let him in on the joke.