That was the year we forgot our dreams and woke, bewildered, muttering. It was spring when I noticed them turning in the sky, this way and that, drifting gently on a breeze. They looked lovely from a distance but somehow
I knew it was a bad sign. It could mean only one thing: my ex-boyfriend was back in town.
Sure enough, I ran into Fred Luck later that day. I was walking home from grooming the dogs when there he was on a bench by the town square watching the fat women twist against the cloudless sky. You! he yelled and leapt up. He was a man of surprises.
It’s been a long time, I replied. I couldn’t quite look him in the eyes. I kept thinking don’t do it don’t do it but somehow I sensed it was only a matter of time. He had eyes like licorice: shining and bitter.
Eloise! Fred called again, though he was only inches away. I’ve been waiting for you to walk by!
You can’t just march back in to someone’s life, I tried to say, but it came out: Oh, Yes, Well.
We stood for a moment studying each other, each with our motives hidden in our sleeves. Actually mine weren’t very well-hidden. Fred, when he could take the time to focus on me, had been an incredible lover and I was feeling a little bit lonely.
Fred, I started.
It’s Jack now, he said, I changed my name.
Jack Luck, I asked? I was thinking with noodles. I was thinking with duck sauce and white rice.
He nodded. I think I look more like a Jack than a Fred, he told me and shoved his hands deep into his pockets.
It was true. He did the name Jack justice.
You were bringing up the property value of Fred though, I blushed. Redeeming it, kind of.
Thanks, he said and smiled.
That part was simple. I brought him home when I knew my house would be empty and made dinner. On the way there he told me how wrong he’d been to leave, how much he’d missed me. I knew his words were empty, the empty husks of beetles long wandered off, the shell game I always lost. Still I let him touch me. Gentle now, I said.
He had his problems. Disappearance wasn’t the worst of it, nor was the plight of the innocent fat ladies. Fred couldn’t control himself. He was what Florence, my godmother, called bad news.
He’s a natural disaster and you’re trailer city, Florence rasped, then took another drag of her cigarette. He’s an itchy rash, a pimple under the skin. He’s a toothache and you’re just numbing the gum, girlie. You need to pull his mean self out and toss it away.
But I love him, I said in the smallest voice those words could afford.
Oh girlie, Florence said, That’s the worst of it.
When we first met I was more trusting. I had just begun to groom dogs and I thought it sweet when Fred showed up at the shop to meet me. I was so swept along by his sexy ways that I didn’t complain when he launched the Apeson’s poodle into the highest branches of the sycamore in front of the library or somehow elevated the Henderson’s Affenpinscher and left it running circles in the air above the kennel roof. I thought to myself, he’s an unusual guy, soul of an artist, I’ll have to smooth some edges is all. Then he impaled the Lorsinski’s cat on a lamppost and dropped a city bus on the Lawson’s Dalmatian.
How the hell did he learn those tricks? Florence had asked me, sucking on a cigarette, curled in smoke.
I don’t know, I told her, twirling my hair.
Well, why can’t he stop it?
I don’t think he knows what he’s doing until it’s too late, I answered. I was looking out the window of her house at the Meyerson’s puppy, romping around in their yard. I don’t think he means to, I said, but I wasn’t entirely sure about that.
I’m leaving something out. See, the other thing was my laugh. I have a terrible laugh, all my life a wretched, horrible laugh. When I laugh, sounds come out of my throat that violate the rest of the world. My laugh causes injury: it makes people nauseous or crazy. Stop that awful sound, they scream, running from my vicinity with their hands clamped over their ears. It’s so bad that the movie theater wouldn’t allow me in to see films. That’s a violation of my rights, I told them, until they set up private screenings. The projectionist would leave the building and sit on the sidewalk. I went and got him when each reel ran out.
So you can imagine what it meant to meet a man who didn’t mind. The first time I laughed around him — we were sitting on my porch when a nervous frantic giggle escaped and I tried to snatch it back with my hand, to stuff it back down my throat — he just tucked a curl behind my ear and whispered, You are so beautiful.
And like that I was putty. It didn’t even bother me that the potted plants that had been resting so quietly beside us on the porch were floating near our heads. It didn’t even bother me when they smashed to bits during our first kiss. All that mattered was Fred and the way he held me. All that mattered was the idea of watching a movie with someone else.
Now by the time Fred became Jack, I had married a guy named Steve. So of course I brought Jack home to meet him. Steve wasn’t his real name — his real name sounded like a kind of sausage — but he’d paid me a lot of money to become his wife and felt Steve made him sound like a naturalized citizen. Though he didn’t like my laugh, he’d hired me to be his wife so he wouldn’t be deported to the gray, depressive country that spawned him. When Steve learned of Jack it seemed to upset him, though his inner life wasn’t always clear to me. We had trouble communicating.
You and me are bloodletting, he said while Jack was in the bathroom.
You and me are bouillabaisse, he tried again. Bakers.
No, I said, flipping the pages of a shiny magazine. I didn’t even look up.
Borrowing, he said. Burrowing.
Blowing? I offered. I enjoyed frustrating him.
No! You are not understanding. You and me like tree, he tried.
Bush? I flipped a page.
(Flip, flip) Brain!
Jack is borrowing wife, he began again, his desperate hands flailing about. Husband forgets husband is forgotten.
I threw down the magazine and rose from the armchair as Jack reentered. Back later, I said.
See, love was not part of the bargain. I know love never is, etc., etc., but I expected more respect. I’ll be your wife, I had told him. Professionally. Like a job, I’d said. You hire me and that’s my job: wife. Nothing else.
Right, he’d said, beaming. Wife.
It wasn’t until later that I realized how little he understood.
So he didn’t like Fred. But everyone liked Fred. It was part of the way of the universe: people met and liked Fred. That was how the world was formed. But not Sausage Steve. The first thing he said when he met Fred was: He is not the good man. He is not the husband for you.
Right, I told him, you hired me. He disappeared. He’s just my obscenely perfect ex-boyfriend who has a strange effect on people.
Steve didn’t get it. He is the no good, he muttered and glared at Fred.
Jack née Fred was many things, I must agree, but not really a bad person, exactly. I mean he acted irresponsibly, sure, but generally because of a helpful impulse, I thought, not a malicious sensibility.
Still, I felt things in the back of my head, forgotten dreams maybe, fleeting thoughts, the sense that I had a running list of things I was losing, things left behind. When we walked out of the house, I looked at Fred but he had his hands in his pockets staring at the night sky, the fat ladies blocking the stars like black holes, like gasps of breath, like forgotten clouds. I shook my head at the way that I felt, yearning for his touch, the anger I’d been storing hidden somewhere distant. He waited for me to catch up, then he put his arm around my shoulders, kissed my forehead and I followed him home.
In the morning we had breakfast at a diner near the park. I sipped coffee and Fred gnawed a banana muffin. The staff watched us, frightened — they had seen the damage Fred could do. This probably isn’t such a great idea, I began in my head, but what I said was, Nice day.
On the radio there was much debate over how to get the fat ladies down from the sky. They waved happily in the daylight but I imagined they must be hungry by now.
But I thought maybe this was the evolution of things, the way the world spun. Maybe this was true for the fat ladies too — that one minute something was an orange and the next it was a peach. And maybe they would drop quietly as they lost weight until they landed here like the rest of us, drawn, haggard, and dreamless, all their glorious roundness gone.