Franklin Fisher and his wife, Beth, were born on the same day of March, two years apart. Franklin was 39 years old, and Beth was 41. Beth liked chiles relenos, Bass ale, gazpacho; Franklin liked mild foods: soufflés, quiche, pea soup. How could she drink Bass ale? And it was beginning to show on her figure. It wasn’t just beginning to show—it was showing in more places, bulging actually, so that now she had big, fat hips and strongman arms. Her disposition had changed, too; as she got larger, she got more vehement, less willing to compromise. Now she cooked two dinners and ate spicy lamb shish-kebob, smacking her lips, shaking on more salt, while Franklin, across from her, lifted a forkful of unseasoned spinach soufflé.
Things got worse between Franklin and Beth after Franklin Junior (“Linny” to his mother) got married and moved to San Bernardino. Their son’s bride was “learning to drive a rig.” She demonstrated how to turn a truck wheel coming down an incline by leaning forward on their sofa, spreading her legs, and moving her arms in what seemed to be two separate circles. Neither Franklin nor Beth knew what to talk to her about. Franklin Junior said, “Yes, sir!” as his bride-to-be simulated steering the truck, She talked about her rig, drank a shot of scotch, declining water or an ice cube, and left after half an hour.
“You’re sorry they’re moving so far away, aren’t you?” Franklin said to Beth.
“No,” Beth said. “She gives me the creeps.”
“Maybe she was putting us on,” Franklin said.
“What for?” Beth asked.
“Maybe she was high.”
“It could be,” Franklin said.
“You don’t understand anything,” Beth said.
“What do you think it meant?” Franklin asked.
“She was learning to drive a truck.”
“Why would she want to be a truck driver?” Franklin asked.
“It’s better than being a mother,” Beth said. “Then your kids grow up and marry truck drivers.”
“There’s nothing really wrong with driving a truck,” Franklin said.
“You don’t understand anything,” Beth said.
It was one of the last times Beth spoke to him at any length. The following morning she turned her head on the pillow to face him and said, “I must have a day of silence” and wouldn’t talk all day. He tried a lot of questions, but nothing provoked a reaction.”Did you know that a silver teaspoon inserted in a bottle of Coke will keep it fizzy for two days after it’s opened?” he asked. Nothing.
The next morning she turned her head and said, “Another day of it.”
“Want to hear why Avon is losing business?” he asked at breakfast.
“Interested in Nixon’s phlebitis?” he called from the T. V. room.
“Would you like to adopt a Vietnamese child?” he whispered just before she dropped off.
On Monday Franklin went to work. He had worked on a magazine called Canning Quarterly and had just been promoted to editor of this magazine and another, Horizontal World, when his secretary said, “Congratulations, Mr. Fisher.” He smiled, then realized that there was nothing to smile about. Her first and last official duty was to type his letter of resignation. Now he had a new job, selling tickets at the movies. It was always very quiet on the job; people filing past with puckered lips: “Two, two, two . . .” the tickets snapping through the metal slot on the counter top. When the movie started Franklin got an orangeade and sat on his stool reading Dear Abby, hoping that she would deal with a problem similar to his own. She did not. She helped a daughter-in-law whose mother-in-law’s seeing-eye dog snapped at her ankles, a teenager who wanted to know how to peel her own face to get rid of acne, and a waiter whose restaurant did not take BankAmericard. There was also a “confidential” to T.S. in Portland, Oregon saying that yes, many unwanted babies were eventually loved.
Franklin usually called Beth after the second show began, just to say hello, but tonight he kept flipping through the papers, looking for guidance: a picture of Teddy Kennedy behind a podium, his cheeks stuffed with nuts that he intended to store for the winter; a picture of a cat—Mr. Tom Cat—and below that, “Please Save Me”; a warning about contaminated canned lima beans; two packs of pencils for the price of one. A teenage girl came up to the counter. She wanted a Coke.
“The girl will be right back,” Franklin said.
“Couldn’t you get it for me?” the girl asked.
“Go to the bathroom and get the girl,” Franklin said pleasantly.
Franklin smiled as the girl returned and got the teenager the Coke. The week before, when he was there early in the morning to look for his lost watch, he had seen the exterminators laughing at a mouse that was swimming inside the Coke tank.
Franklin hopped off the stool and lifted the phone off the hook. He expected at least a hello from Beth, but the phone rang once and then there was silence.
“Beth?” he said.
“I can hardly wait to get home to you, darling,” he said.
“Do you miss your beloved?” he asked.
He put the phone back on the hook. The girl behind the candy counter looked away just before their eyes met.
“There are mice in the Coke machine,” Franklin said.
The girl picked up a box of chocolate covered raisins and moved to the far side of the counter.
“Mice. Swimming in there,” Franklin said.
“There are not,” she said. She moved farther away.
Instead of going to work, Franklin went to the race track. He stared at the horses, at their small heads, their straight ears, their big bodies, their delicate legs. How could such animals do anything? He bet on number one in the first race,” Fine’N’Fancy,” and lost. In the next race he bet on number two, “Daddy’s Delight,” and lost again. He won in the next race by betting on number three, “Golden Gospel.” He stuffed his winnings into his trouser pockets and went out into the parking lot, where he had left his car. The aerial had been bent into an arc. Franklin got into the car and tried the radio. Static. Franklin got out, kicked the side of the car below the aerial, got back in and drove away. He drove until he got to the seamy part of town. He locked his doors and drove slowly down the main street, looking for—or thinking about looking for—a woman. At a McDonald’s he double-parked and got out. A young black woman was twisting a mulatto child’s arm behind its back, yelling, “Do you understand?”
“Sir?” the boy behind the counter said as Franklin approached.
“I don’t want any of this awful shit,” Franklin said and started away. He patted the head of the child whose arm was being twisted on the way out.
A Puerto Rican girl was sitting on the hood of his car, swinging her legs. She had on bright blue platform shoes with blue plastic bows on the ankle straps.
“Your car?” she said, hopping down.
“Want to get inside?” Franklin asked, drawing the money out of his pocket.
“No,” the girl said.
“Were you going to eat at McDonald’s?”
“No,” she said.
“Because if you were, I could take you some place nicer for dinner.”
“What for?” she laughed. She had a broken front tooth. She had on orange lipstick.
“Company,” he said.
“You’re not that bad,” she said. “Don’t you have a girl-friend?”
“You’re right,” Franklin said. “I’m not that bad. I just don’t have my girlfriend with me at the moment, so I thought you might want to go to dinner with me.”
The girl was laughing harder. Franklin looked in back of him and saw a policeman. The girl continued to laugh, walking away.
“Wait a minute,” the cop called. “He bothering you?”
“No,” the girl said.
“Wait a minute,” the cop said to Franklin. “I’ve got a present for you, big spender.” It was a ten-dollar ticket.
“Give me a break,” Franklin said.
“If I heard you just then, I’d take you in for harassing an officer and creating a disturbance,” the cop said.”Did I hear you say anything?”
Franklin shook his head.
“Am I watching you drive away?” the cop asked.
The cop waved as Franklin drove away, shaking.
“Hello, sonny,” Franklin said. He was very drunk.
“Who’s this?” Franklin Junior asked.
“Your daddy,” Franklin said. Perhaps he was not as drunk as he thought; he was keeping up his end of the conversation pretty well.
“Pop?” Franklin Junior said.
“It is I,” Franklin said.
“What’s the matter with you, Pop?”
“It’s what’s the matter with your mother.”
“What is wrong with her?” Franklin Junior asked quickly.
“It must remain a rhetorical question,” Franklin said.
A muted conversation.
“Are you all right? Is Mom there?”
“Which question do you care most about?”
“How are you doing in your new life?” Franklin asked.
“Let me speak to Mom, Pop.”
“She’s not here, sonny. You’ll have to speak to me.”
“Okay. What is it, Pop? Are you sick?”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Franklin said.
“Three minutes. Please signal when through,” the operator said.
“Operator?” Franklin Junior said. “Pop?”
Both were gone. Franklin had dropped the phone so he could pick up a glass he had dropped.
Beth Fisher did not know where Franklin was, and she didn’t care. What a mess that man was! He had convinced her that they should marry because it was in the stars: they had been born on the same day of March. He mentioned that first when he introduced her to his friends. Even Franklin had not been able to see anything more in the relationship to talk about. All those wasted years! She had called her daughter-in-law, lamenting her marriage to Franklin. The girl had told her that there was nothing as exhilarating as driving a rig. It was all she could talk about. And Linny—he was so full of questions about Franklin that he wouldn’t listen to her.
Beth got a job in the lingerie department of a store and prayed that Franklin wouldn’t come back. Women came into the department all day, holding up fluffy nylon nightgowns and admiring themselves in the mirror, buying matching satin slippers, wanting to appear beautiful for their husbands. Beth thought they were silly. She believed that she was becoming a feminist. She joined N.O.W. She ate what she wanted and thought that she looked healthier when she was heavy. By December she was quite fat; she often spoke in favor of abortions to the ladies buying the frilliest nightgowns. In January she was moved to the drapery department.
She went out a few times with a salesman from the drapery department, who said that the other women were spiteful. They went to a bar and ate pizza and drank Bass ale, and after that he took her home and didn’t kiss her. The salesman thought that she should file for legal separation. He said that men could be spiteful creatures. He gave her a kitten for Christmas, “This is Hildegard,” he said as he handed the small white kitten to her. When he wasn’t there she called the cat Snowflake.
Shortly after Christmas, Beth came home and found Franklin in the living room. He was reading a novel. A shark, more teeth than body, lunged across the cover; to the side, a man was being slugged in the face. She had time to consider the book because Franklin didn’t put it down when she came in. His shoes were by the chair. His toes had broken through the sock of the right foot; they protruded in a tiny fan.
“I’m not exactly clear on what happened between us,” he said.
She went into the kitchen and got a beer. She came back to the living room.
“I realized that there was nothing I wanted to say to you and there was nothing I wanted to hear,” she said.
“The movie theatre manager keeps calling,” Beth says. “He sees great significance in the fact that you disappeared after seeing Dirty Harry,”
“Maybe I could get the job back,” Franklin said. The kitten hopped onto the footstool and bit at Franklin’s toes.
“What have you been doing?” Franklin asked.
“Working. In a store.”
“I’ve been living off a Puerto Rican woman I picked up outside a McDonald’s. She was making plans to go to Puerto Rico. When she went to work today I left.”
“I don’t believe you,” Beth said.
Franklin looked at the shark’s teeth.
Franklin and Beth were snowed in. He had spent the night (the cliché would be “on the couch”; he was sprawled in the Eames chair with his feet on a pile of magazines on top of the telephone book), intending to leave in the morning, but by morning he couldn’t have opened the front door if he had wanted to. Leave like Santa Claus? He looked up the chimney, full of soot, then made a fire and sat cross-legged, trying to think—he thought this was a position people got into to meditate—when Beth came downstairs, excited and surprised by the snow. They had celery and beans for lunch. Beth wore a thin blue bathrobe that made her hips look even more enormous. He thought of the horses, the racetrack. . . . He wanted flan, he wanted his Puerto Rican lover back, to kiss her orange lips. The orange lipstick was flavored with oranges. His Puerto Rican lover wanted to go to Florida and eat oranges. More than that, she wanted to go to Puerto Rico: her sister the nun, her brother the blacksmith, the grave of her youngest sister, the other sister a cook for wealthy people, another brother—wasn’t there another one, or was that the one who was born dead? Born with the measles. He told her that that wasn’t possible. But a doctor had been there! Then he hadn’t known what he was talking about. Those big bright lips. He tickled them with a feather once when she was asleep. He pulled it out of his pillow and brushed it across her lips and she drew them together, sat up scratching herself. She wanted to be Eric Clapton’s lover. He had never heard of Eric Clapton. She said that Eric Clapton was addicted to heroin. She agreed with Franklin that his son was addicted to drugs; otherwise he would love his parents. She wanted him to call his son. What for? For reconciliation! But there had been no fight. Nothing ever came entirely apart.
He had had to hound her and hound her to be his lover. For almost a week after first seeing her he sat in his car, parked outside McDonald’s, and waited, and then he hounded her, offered his car, which was all he had with him. She refused. She was not a whore, she was a clerk. He didn’t want a whore, he wanted a clerk. This made her eyes big, like her mouth. She wore such high heels. She was as tall as he was in those shoes, and without them she was just a tiny woman. He offered his belt or shirt, if she would not take the money or the car, “Okay,” she said. “Which?” he asked, “The belt or the shirt?” wondering where he would get a belt to keep his pants up late at night after she put him out. She had a girlfriend who walked into her apartment in the morning and beat his head with the pillow when she saw him sleeping there. What an odd person the friend was, and his lover—what a strange woman, comparing him to Eric Clapton, saying that she never had a chance in hell with Eric Clapton anyway.
Beth said that they would have to feed the birds, Feed the birds? He lived in suburbia. In the grocery stores there were little bells of suet and bird seed that women brought home and hung in trees. Beth didn’t have one of those; she wanted him to tear up bread, put it in a pan, take it to the birds. He told her that he couldn’t get out the front door because the snow had drifted. She said that the birds would die. He climbed out the bathroom window. The bread crumbs were blown out of the pie tin, mixed with the snow, disappeared. He climbed back in through the window. He wrapped a towel around his head and sat in front of the fire.
“Being born on the same day seemed a very good thing to go on,” he said.
He examined his wife. He thought the bathrobe peculiar, had no idea that she had gotten it very cheaply: marked down to seven dollars by the buyer after Beth jabbed a pen through the back of it. From 45 dollars to 25 (small hole) to 15.50 (large hole, two runs) to seven dollars (hole, runs, hem coming loose.)
“It’s hard to imagine that somewhere in the world it’s warm today,” Beth said, forehead against the foggy window. She was chewing celery, heavily sprinkled with chili powder.