Saturday, May 19, 2012

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“Harry?” she hissed. “You awake?”

He’d spent the last twenty-eight (click)--twenty-nine--minutes trying to fall asleep. He’d counted sheep--big, fluffy, snow-white sheep leaping in slow motion over a fence, a barbed wire fence. And the sheep were definitely rams, endowed with very apparent ramrods, and every third or fourth one would catch himself on a barb, leaving his ramhood dangling there in Harry’s wide-awake imagination. After the fourth unsuccessful try Harry decided he’d had enough of sheep.

Then he tried the self-hypnosis trick he’d read about, the one where you relax body parts one at a time. First the face, then the neck, arms and fingers, legs and toes. Trying to make his whole body relax and turn to mush. He’d gone through the whole bit and was working on his toes when he realized he could no longer feel them. Then the last phase, with eyes closed, staring cross-eyed at the imagined tip of his nose. He was just approaching that hazy plane that led to slumberland when his wife’s question jerked him back from the brink.

He heard the click of the digits go from 12:28 to 12:29.

“Yeah,” he sighed, “I am now.”

Silence. He began a mental countdown to see how long she’d take. At ten he couldn’t stand it.

“Is that it?” Silence. “You just wanted to know if I was awake?” Silence. “What?”

He began counting again. At five she said, “Harry, where were you tonight, really? I mean really?”

“Ohhh, man,” he moaned, “we’re not gonna go through all that again, are we?” “Yesss. We are. Go through all that again.” She bit off each word with quiet determination. “But this time I want the truth. I called your office at five-thirty, and Sylvia told me you’d left around four. She wasn’t sure where, but she thought you said something about the Cherry Pit. So, Harry, where’d you really go?”

The clock clicked from 32 to 33. He sighed. “I already told you, I had to meet Fred Thompson.” Fred and Laura Thompson lived four houses to the north and they often got together with them and other neighbors for summer cookouts, and this past winter more and more often out to dinner with them at one of several restaurants they liked, or fairly regularly at one house or the other for cocktails or dinner or both. “Fred wasn’t happy with his policy. I had to explain the conversion options. We met. I explained. That’s it.” There, the same explanation as the first three times. Keep it simple. Simple was best. Especially for Alice.

“But why not at your office? That’s what offices are for, aren’t they? Why at a bar?”

“Fred called just before four and since it was already late, we decided to meet and discuss it over a martini.”

“A martini. For four hours. Uh huh.”

“Okay, okay, a few martinis, all right?”

“What’s your definition of a few?”

“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Alice. I don’t know why you can’t just leave it alone. We talked about his insurance and then we talked about other things. You know, the usual small talk over cocktails. And the music was good and we just lost track of time.”

“The music at the Cherry Pit was good? Who was playing, Harry? Or were you too loaded with gin-soaked olives to remember?”

“You’re really something, Alice, you know that? Somebody I never heard of was playing. Some guy at the piano playing oldies. And I wasn’t loaded.”

“Name a tune, Harry, any tune.”

“C’mon, Alice, cut me a break. What is this, a quiz show or an interrogation?”

“Whichever you want. So, Harry, name that tune.”

“Jeez! Okay, he played . . .” Harry hesitated. “He played, let’s see, Stars Fell on Alabama. I remember that one. And Fred asked him to play Laura. I know because he said it was his favorite, because of Laura. You need more?”

Momentary silence, but he could hear her breathing, not happy breathing either.

“All right, then, so why when I called the Cherry Pit just before six did they say you weren’t there?”

“How the hell do I know!” he said in exasperation. “Maybe I didn’t hear the page. Maybe I was in the john. What is this?”

“Ohhh!” Just that one sound of disbelief from the other side of the bed.

“I was there, all night. All right?”

“Ohhh! That’s a bear toothed lie!”

“No,” he said, and then laughed softly. He couldn’t help it. Alice was a modern Mrs. Malaprop, or more exactly, a female Archie Bunker.

“No? Not a lie?”

“Nooo. Not a bear toothed lie.”

“Well, what kind of a lie then?”

“No. I mean it’s not a bear toothed lie. It’s barefaced.”

“You mean you were lying?”

“No. I mean the expression is ‘barefaced lie,’ not ‘bear toothed lie.’ That’s silly.”

“Bearfaced is just as silly as bear toothed. And don’t you dare call me silly!”

“Well, you’re being silly if you think it’s a bear toothed lie. What in God’s name would that mean? A lie with big teeth? That’s really silly. It’s called a barefaced lie. Or sometimes a baldfaced lie.”

“Bawledfaced! Bawledfaced! That’s even sillier than bearfaced. What’s bawledface? Somebody who bawls and hopes the bawling hides the lie? That’s just dumb!”

“ No, no, bald, bald, b-a-l-d, like a guy with no hair. Don’t you know anything?”

“Oh, you! don’t you dare make fun of me! I might not be as smart as you, and I certainly don’t know nearly as much about lying as you seem to, but I know a lie when I hear one, especially a . . . a bear toothed lie! Bawledface! Hah!”

Neither of them said anything. Both were rigid, lying on their backs, any chance of sleep now long gone--over the hill with Harry’s rams. This argument was as idiotic as most of the others they’d been having more and more frequently.

The clock showed 12:37.

Then Alice said, “So where were you?”

“Ohhh,” he groaned. “Now we’re back to that, huh? I’ve already told you where I was. Now will you please leave it alone and let me get some sleep? Okay?”

Silence. Ten count.

“All right, Harry. But this isn’t the last of it. I’m going to find out if it’s the last thing I do.”

Harry didn’t respond. Maybe if he kept his mouth shut she would too, at least for the rest of the night. He knew he hadn’t heard the last of it though.

He began again the process of trying to go to sleep. No sheep this time, the image of dangling genitals still too vivid. Instead, soft clouds passing over the horizon, one by one, softening his anger and letting his blood slow.

Just before he found the promised land, he thought again of where he’d been that evening. He’d really gone to the Cherry Pit to meet Fred Thompson. And they’d really discussed some insurance. And they’d really had a martini. But only one. When the piano player started playing Laura (not at Fred’s request), Harry was reminded of his other date. He told Fred he had to go back to the office to catch up on some bookwork, that he had at least another hour or two before he could call it a day. Fred said he had to meet a client for dinner at six, so they excused each other and went their separate ways.

Harry picked up Laura Thompson at their regular meeting place in the parking lot of the Western Hills Mall and then they drove to their regular motel out on High Street, knowing they had at least an hour together before they had to resume their roles of dutiful husband (Harry to Alice) and wife (Laura to Fred).

They were together more than an hour. More like two.

His last image before he finally drifted off to sleep was that of Laura Thompson, head resting on a pillow, a cloud pillow, one Laura after another drifting across the sky and disappearing over the horizon.

* * *

Alice felt her breathing slow, her anger lessen. It wasn’t so much anger as perversity that made her pursue her husband’s whereabouts that evening.

Damn liar, she thought.

Fred Thompson had called her just before six and told her he’d pick her up at their usual spot, that Harry had assured him he wouldn’t be home for at least an hour or more. And that was another thing. Fred was just another damn liar. He’d always told her his favorite song was Alice Blue Gown.

So now she was angry at both of them. But more at Harry because he’d lied to her about where he’d been, and she would make it a point to push him until she got the truth. She’d find out one way or the other just exactly who it was he was running around with.

She knew a bear-toothed lie when she heard one.