The ball arches toward its apogee from the far court, rising to the left of the afternoon sun in a sky so cloudless it looks plastic. I try to concentrate on its passage and it seems to me for a moment I can read the green letters, PENN 7, against the lemon-colored covering as the topspin turns the ball through the air.
To my right I can hear the skipping steps of my wife as she turns and runs back from the net: she always skips when it’s not her shot, an endearing mannerism that makes her attractive and girlish, the little blue skirt bouncing to show flashes of white underpants. Sheila is 33 years old, and only last week she was asked for identification at a bar.
“What do you mean?” she said, feigning indignation. “I have three children!”
“No problem,” said the bartender, “but I need to see your driver’s license.” Of course, she doesn’t have one, but when we told him she wouldn’t be drinking—she just wanted to sit with us—he let her in.
It amazes me that an alcoholic like Sheila can look half her age: she’s only been on the wagon for six months. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair—life’s not fair, President Kennedy told us, not knowing how right he was. I’m 36 and look like Sheila’s father, I guess because I’ve gone bald. People joke about it because my arms and chest are hairy—pull it up a little, they say. Hey Chrome Dome, share the wealth. Bald men are studs, I tell them. Even so, I’m self-conscious: I didn’t even want to go to my college reunion last fall, but Sheila talked me into it. She wanted to go, naturally.
“Don’t be such a prig, Jack,” she said. “Howard and Duncan and Murray, the whole gang will be there. We’ll go to a football game, play a little tennis—it’ll be wonderful to see everyone again.” Mainly, she wanted the cocktail parties, but by this time she was smart enough not to mention them. After the last one, she had lost her driver’s license.
“You hate football,” I reminded her. “It’s too violent, and you can’t see those gorgeous bodies with all those pads hiding them.” But she did like tennis, that was her game. Sheila is naturally fast—”I’m a fast woman,” she’ll crow, strutting on her heels after running down some impossible shot—but she’s also fierce as a weasel, her open-eyed baby face fooling opponents until they play her a few times.
Sheila can’t stand the way I play. First of all, she’s better than I am, but that can’t be helped. What drives her crazy is my instinct to play what she considers “cute” tennis: soft shots, dink shots, backspin drops at the net instead of slamming the ball away. I look on it as a more intellectual game than she does. After we went to the reunion, we got to the, finals of the mixed doubles tennis tournament (skipping the football game, as I foresaw). An easy lob was coming to me, and she must have seen I was going to try to just drop it over the net.
“Paste it!,” she screamed. “Paste it, you bastard!” She startled everybody, and of course I missed the shot, poking it out of bounds. We were losing anyway, but after that they made short work of us. In Sheila’s defense, I should point out that we had already started drinking—this wasn’t a serious competition!—and when we changed sides we’d all have sips of beer instead of Gatorade. In the semi-finals, in fact, we beat the McMahons because they were drinking Planter’s Punch and could hardly see the ball by the second set. Phil even played the net with a drink in his hand—and made some good shots, too! Everyone laughed a lot, and I suppose it was fun. Alumni Weekend is like that.
Back in the motel she got in the shower with me. It’s hard to have an argument with someone who’s taking a shower with you, but I tried.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” I told her. “Don’t do that again.”
“Mm-mm,” she said. “Don’t be so serious. Don’t do what again? This?”
“Don’t yell at me. Don’t swear at me.”
“I didn’t swear at you, Jack,” she said, and maybe she believed it. “I was just afraid you were going to try one of those stupid drop shots, and you did, just like I thought.” There was no use talking, so I got out of the shower and got dressed, which didn’t help her humor any. Sheila likes motels—they’re a break from the children, from routine: even the crumbiest motel rooms turns her on, and she starts acting like the Blue Angel.
So in a way, she was a woman scorned when we went to the cocktail party and dinner at the Van Burén hotel. The Van Burén was a stately old landmark that catered to the college community for its formal affairs: its wide stairways, ornate chandeliers, and deep carpets encouraged dignified conversation and large donations—the day before the party, in the same room, Howard Kelleher had too many martinis and wrote out a check for $50,000 on the spot, handing it with a flourish to President Wilford, who has mastered the art of standing with a single drink for three hours, looking like he’s one of the boys. Howard, I remembered, had failed Freshman English twice and had finally passed by writing out a somewhat smaller check to Wayne Tobias, king of the Senior ghost writers.
“Howard,” I remember telling him. “For God’s sake, you’re going to get in trouble. We’re on the honor system here.”
“You’ve got the honor, I’ve got the system,” he said. Howard could balance a lawn mower on his chin, and no one argued with him too much. Actually, he wasn’t argumentative, and when we got to the Van Burén he was as affable as he had been as an undergraduate.
“Jack, you old whiz kid,” he yelled. “You look great! What happened to your hair?”
“Hi, Howard,” I said. “You remember Sheila.” This was unnecessary, as at our tenth reunion, five years ago, Sheila had spent an hour bouncing on his lap. I had married a flirt, there was no doubt about it.
“Hullo, Sheila sweet,” he said. “What are we drinking this year? Rubbing alcohol? Chicken sweat?” Howard never learned to write, but he’s a motor mouth and doesn’t require feedback. He steered her over to the cash bar when Murray and Duncan came over to join us.
Murray Thompson and Duncan Schneider were my best friends in college, and had been with me when I started dating Sheila. They had liked her from the start, not least because she was as wild as the boys, but now she made them nervous. At the last reunion she had begun singing the vile songs we had taught her, and they laughed uncomfortably, not joining in, winking at their more decorous wives. Murray was a real estate broker in Binghamton and Duncan was a lobbyist for a charitable organization in Washington, D.C., but I think neither of them made as much as I did: it’s been a good time for people like me in corporate law. Of course, Howard had left us all behind—he had his own sheet metal company, and was apparently worth a fortune.
“Can you believe that sucker?” Murray said, sipping his martini. “How the hell did he do it? He only passed Gym because he could balance that stupid lawnmower.”
“He probably stole the company,” Duncan said, “or maybe it doesn’t even exist and this is another big put-on.”
“I guess that check was real. Anyone need anything?” I headed over to the bar to catch up with Sheila and try to slow her down. Being married to an alcoholic is a lot of work, and I suppose it was at this reunion I first began using that term in my mind. Before that she had always been “one of the boys,” a big drinker, then a “heavy” drinker. Looking for her in the crowd, I began to think “alcoholic.” I knew, for example, that she wasn’t going to make it through the night, that there’d be some kind of scene; and I was trying to figure how to cut my losses.
I was already too late: she and Howard had disappeared. I stood there, waiting for my gin and tonic, imagining the worst. Last time, she sat on his lap; this time she might have him in a telephone booth, her skirt hiked up while she talked to her mother (one of her fantasies). Sheila’s mother was the soul of etiquette—she had brought Sheila up, without a father (who had died early on), emphasizing ladylike deportment. Naturally, this is what Sheila rebelled against, though I agreed with her mother: without plain good manners, civilization will go down the tubes.
I knew that when she was drinking, Sheila was capable of anything, and Howard, who had the brains of a chimpanzee and the glands to match, was liable to go along with her, so I set off through the baroque corridors of the Van Burén, tracking them down and hoping I wouldn’t find them. Turning one corner, my heart popped when I came upon a couple locked in libidinous embrace next to an ebony grandfather’s clock, but I was relieved and surprised to see it was Charlie Lundquist and the president’s wife, who looked at me with imploring eyes: don’t squeal. Or maybe she meant, me next. It’s hard to tell with people in certain positions whether they are behaving scandalously or raising money. But Charlie Lundquist! I hardly knew him, though he lived in our town— he always needs a haircut and is just a Latin teacher, of all things, in some nearby private school.
I pretended not to see them, and sailed on by, deeper and deeper into the hotel until after 20 minutes of searching, I spotted Sheila and Howard on a back porch overlooking the lake. They were sitting on a swinging wicker love seat, watching the sun go down. The sun was balancing on a mountain peak like a red ball on a seal’s nose and the lake water was looking black and cold. Sheila was crying. She was in her crying stage: first she cries, then she gets angry, and then she throws up.
“Howard,” I said, “I wish you wouldn’t take Sheila away from the party like this. You can see it upsets her.” Sheila looked pretty disheveled, like a high school girl at the end of the Senior Prom. “Are you all right, Sheila?” I sat down on the porch railing in front of them.
“I’m not upsetting her, Jack,” Howard said, patting Sheila’s head. “She’s upset to start with. She just wanted to see the sun set, and there it goes.” With deceptive speed, the sun was slipping behind the mountain, which now looked like a woman’s breast on fire. “What time is it?”
“I’m hungry,” Sheila said. “I’m all right. I always cry at twilight. Or is it dusk?”
Howard stood up. “”If it’s not one thing it’s the other,” said the girl with the bloody nose. Let’s go eat.”
Sheila laughed and took my hand, pulling herself up, just a little unsteadily. “Maybe we should go back to the motel,” I said, trying to gauge her exact condition.
“Don’t be silly, the night is young,” she said, and paused. “You’re supposed to say, “And you’re so beautiful.”” She was beautiful but I didn’t say it; I was mad at her for running off with Howard.
When we got back to the party, the class members, mostly accompanied by their second wives and third drinks, were spilling into the dining room. Murray and Duncan, with their wives, had saved us seats at a round table, and the three of us joined them. That left one extra seat, and Howard waved at Charlie Lundquist, who was standing by himself, looking like the original Sad Sack.
“Hey Shakespeare, get over here!” Howard yelled, and Charlie obediently came. He hesitated when he saw me, but I smiled as if I remembered nothing, and he sat down. Introductions were mumbled: Iris, Daphne. Iris, Duncan’s new wife, was a sultry blonde with rings on every finger and under her eyes; Daphne was a quiet and intelligent-looking woman who began talking with Charlie about a book of poetry he apparently had written. I didn’t pay much attention, trying to keep my eye on Sheila, who was gulping down the champagne that Howard had ordered for the table. She drank champagne like lemonade in July, and the last thing we needed was more of it, but that’s what we got when they announced the winners of the mixed doubles tennis tournament.
Second prize was a magnum of champagne (first prize was a plaque) and my classmates cheered and whistled when Sheila wobbled up to accept it. Someone yelled “Paste it!” and she smiled, holding the large bottle over her head like a Wimbledon trophy. She enjoyed the attention, and gave the bottle to Howard to pop—she knew I would suggest saving it until later.
Dinner, like all of these affairs, was an assemblage of songs and jokes and expensive food served at room temperature. After dinner, while dessert was being served along with coffee and, at our table anyway, brandy, Ed Rudolph, the president of our Senior class, stood up and introduced President Wilford as our guest speaker.
“You all know what a guest speaker is—” the president began, “—a son of a bitch from out of town, with slides. I’m going to skip both the slides and the speech—I’ve cleared this with Ed—for something more appropriate to the occasion. I’d like each one of you to give a brief summary of your life since last we met.” He wanted to know who was making money.
Ed Rudolph agreed. “I know you’re all rich and famous and have had many exotic affairs, I mean adventures, but please keep this short, so we can get to the real party. Let’s begin with the people at the head table.”
Our college has the distinction of requiring four years of public speaking from its graduates, creating false confidence and an inflated style, so the speeches were not nearly brief enough. By the time they got around to our table, the brandy had come around twice and even my head was buzzing. Howard, of course, jumped up first and told a tasteless joke about the fire department and a woman stuck on a toilet seat, not failing to work in an allusion to the check he had given President Wilford yesterday. Charlie Lundquist, to his credit, recited an incomprehensible but mercifully short poem that had a rose-breasted grosbeak in it. It was my turn. I folded my napkin—and Sheila stood up. What was I supposed to do, yank her down like an errant two-year-old?
“Hullo,” she said (a few drunken classmates shouted Hello back). “My name is Sheila, Mrs. Jack Poole to you (Hi, Sheila; Hi, Mrs. Jack). I think the wives should be able to say something, too, don’t you? Equal time?”
Sheila has a clear, strong voice—it was one of the things that attracted me to her, believe it or not. When she began, at least two-thirds of the tables weren’t paying any attention, but before she got far along everyone was listening. A woman’s voice caught their attention, and Sheila is a good-looking woman, easy to look at.
“Jack and I have been married 15 years, since right after your graduation. He makes lots of money. (Cheers. Sheila waved her glass around with an expansive gesture.) He likes to read the Alumni Bulletin and see how much everybody gives. Jack says some of you mustn’t make diddley, whatever that means. (Boos. I started to get up but she put her hand on my shoulder.)
“All he cares about is making money,” she continued, her voice steady but her legs shaking. “His job is making sure his company can duck its taxes, and he’s good at it, he works at it all the time. He has three small children who are afraid of him and a wife—that’s me (she put her index finger on her breast in an exaggerated gesture)—that he never talks with. In fact, he doesn’t do much of anything with me.” She opened her eyes like Orphan Annie and staggered backwards.
At this point, the room was as quiet as it had been in a hundred years, and I forced my way up, my head spinning, the blood gone from my face. She seemed to be just beginning! I tried to catch Sheila’s arm, and she backed farther away from me, her high heels catching in the rug. Duncan told me later that many people thought that I hit her, but she just stumbled on her own and crashed down on the next table. Dishes, glasses, bottles, cups smashed in a pile around my drunken wife, whom I could have shot through the heart if I had a gun.
It took a long time to get out of that nightmare, which was very expensive and included a visit from a doctor and three stitches in Sheila’s left arm. I put her to bed at the motel sometime in the small hours, poured myself a drink, and thought about various ways to kill her. Plop her in a car, leave the motor running. Drop her from a bridge. Push her off a balcony. I sat beside her on the bed: she had never looked more innocent. I remembered her, 15 years ago, the only girl brave enough to sit in a circle with us and play our undergraduate drinking games. Times have changed, and we have, too; none for the better.
I was going to ask for a divorce, though there’s never been one in our family, or hers. In the end, we compromised, we are trying to compromise. Among other things, she goes to AA, and I take serious tennis lessons. I don’t know how much good either of these activities will do—it hasn’t been that long. Maybe after a while, we’ll regress and kill each other. But the tennis lessons bring me home early, and I see the kids more, and of course I take care of them when Sheila’s at AA.
The ball is still in the air, curving downward in a gentle arc. Sheila dances beside me, on her toes like a ballerina en pointe. In the far court Charlie Lundquist and Daphne Schneider are backing up as I set my feet, looking for balance—my shoulders are squared, and as the ball dips into range I reach back with all my might, and I paste it.