They met at one of her father’s swinger parties. People were determined to like any story that began in such a way, so Verity had given up explaining that her dad was not really a true swinger; he had no fishbowl in which his guests could deposit their keys, yet one could not ignore the revolving cast of ladies with whom he kept company.
Verity sampled the homemade onion dip. Not bad. It had taken Tex years to master the basics of loner dad cuisine.
Behind her, an unfamiliar male voice spoke. “There’s the onion dip, but where are the other delights?”
She turned around to face a man of squinky appeal: warm brown eyes, a tsunami of wild auburn curls, charming beer belly, bowling shoes. “What?”
He bit his lip. He had not planned what to say after that surefire come-on. “Er . . . I . . . Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass? That album?”
“Whipped cream,” said Verity. “The Herb Alpert album is Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Very nice. I just got one at the thrift last week for eighty cents. It was an old college radio station copy, and the girl on the cover had been sliced up with an X-Acto knife.”
“Oh. That’s, uh, too bad.”
“No, no, not at all. The vinyl was in decent shape; all I want to do is play it, not worship it.” She ate more onion dip, just as a thick, coiled hair made its descent from the tsunami next to her into the bowl. They both watched it, fascinated.
“I’m sorry,” he said, retrieving the errant strand with a contrivance concocted of plastic cocktail swords and toothpick umbrellas.
She dipped the chip and said, “It’s okay. Your hair looks reasonably clean and I’m not all that particular anyway.”
He stared at her in amazement. Who was this girl with the record player and blasé indifference to hygiene? He had to know.
She obliged. “I’m Verity Presti. Tex, our swinging single host, is my dad.” Her gaze traveled over to her father, who was engaged in a train wreck masquerading as a three-way fox-trot with two wanton senior citizens. She glanced back at the squink. “Who are you?”
He replied, “I met your dad through a flyer posted at the Koffee Kup in Chicago that read ‘Experienced dentist, Downers Grove—will clean your teeth in my home in exchange for yardwork.’ I got six years’ worth of plaque and tartar scraped off, and then I went out in the yard and created a yew topiary for him shaped like a heart. I guess he was pretty pleased with the shrubbery, so he invited me to this party. He said it was going to be ‘a swinging little soiree,’ but I had no idea . . .” His voice trailed off as the fox-trot threesome convulsed nearby.
Verity watched them, too. “He’s harmless. Just lonely.”
He reached for her hand and said, “My name is Charlie Brown.”
Verity considered telling him about the onion dip on the front of his trousers, but figured with a name like that, he had enough problems.
Shortly thereafter, Tex retrieved a brass urn from his fireplace mantel and stepped into the center of the family room. He clutched the urn tightly, smiled sorrowfully, and cleared his throat. Here we go, thought Verity, and she addressed the onion dip with renewed vigor.
“I’d like to make a short speech,” he began, “a tribute, really, to my dear, dead Thelma.” Tex raised the urn so that all could see Thelma, or Thelma’s vessel, more clearly. “She was a wonderful wife and mother, and when she passed on she left me and my daughters abandoned and heartbroken, of course, but richer for having known her.”
Tex’s stable of calcified sexpots made sad, sympathetic clucking noises as they moved in for the kill. Men who paid tribute to their wives, even dead ones, were rare creatures.
“She must have been small,” someone remarked.
Guests took turns consoling Tex, patting his back kindly and then, unsure of what complicated etiquette dance Emily Post had devised for the situation, patted the urn, too.
“It’s not as though you can wait around at the crematorium and then you’re presented with a quality urn in some kind of ceremony,” Tex explained. “Sure, that’s what everyone thinks, but in reality, you have to buy the urn yourself—they don’t tell you that—and then the ashes arrive whenever Cletus or whoever is running the incinerator that day gets around to sending them. And the delivery itself—well, just imagine the shock: the doorbell rings one morning, and you’re faced with the thought, ‘I’m standing here holding my spouse in a box sent certified mail.’ They just weren’t very sensitive.” The ladies surrounded him, dosing him with good intentions and fellow feeling and tequila and homemade guacamole (elderly swingers love homemade guacamole). The urn somehow made its way back to the mantel, where it perched on the precipice with its lid askew.
Charlie paused as he lifted his beer to his lips and turned to Verity. “I’m awfully sorry. I didn’t know.”
Verity clinked her beer bottle with Charlie’s and said, “My mother’s not dead.” Two
It began with the ridiculous, at one of those cocktail parties they lived to have. Craig arranged his Belgian beers in the wine refrigerator, then set the Pilsner and Weiss beer glasses along the countertop. Would people know which glasses went with which beers? He stood back and regarded his handiwork doubtfully. If someone wanted a Stella Artois and all that were left were glasses suitable for a Hoegaarden, he’d never forgive himself.
“Do you think these are okay?” he asked his wife.
Carolyn said, “You have nine thousand glasses. Everything will be fine. Just repeat the calming mantra I taught you.” She listened for the baby, hoping she would not awake at the tone of hysteria creeping into Craig’s voice.
“Yes, but Will’s coming and you know how he likes Chimay Rouge, but I only have two Chimay glasses, so I wonder if I should just hide them until he gets here, or—”
He continued on this road for some time. Carolyn chopped vegetables and wondered if it was too late to change her husband’s personality. Lately he had been acting like the depressed oval in that animated Zoloft commercial, which just could not be good for his chi. But she did not want to begrudge him this one interest, this one peculiar and tedious interest in Belgian beer. Of course, he had not always been this neurotic, but ever since the arrival of that new project manager last year, Craig’s capacity for insecurity and diffidence had reached critical mass. Each time he had been passed over for a promotion, he acquired new glasses that bore etched names no one could understand, like Corsendonck and Rochefortoise, and he kept them wrapped in acid-free tissue in a locked cabinet until such events transpired that warranted their use.
“Nice!” he exclaimed suddenly. “Blanche Steendonk! I forgot I had this.” He withdrew a bottle from the back of the wine fridge and adjusted the coolant setting to 40.1 degrees, optimum temperature.
The baby had had enough of Brussels’ finest and began to wail. Carolyn, in the middle of slicing crudités, paused and rested the heels of her palms against the cutting board. She tapped the point of the knife on the board and turned her gaze to Craig. He rearranged the bottles in the fridge and felt her eyes upon him, but did not move.
“I’ll go up,” Carolyn said.
The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it!” Craig called out and ran to the front door.
Will was the first to arrive and was given a Chimay glass in exchange for his jacket. He was cautioned to hold on to it while Craig admitted other guests. Will poured himself the appropriate beer and sat on the couch, wishing someone would get rid of that smooth jazz playing on the stereo. Why was smooth jazz always on the stereo in this house? It had been playing the last time Will had been there, in March, when he had come over to watch the war on TV, but the baby had been crying so much that it was difficult to follow the play-by-play. He would wait five minutes to see if anyone would dump the smooth jazz, then he’d have a go at it himself. Five minutes—wait patiently—then get up casually and change the station. He had the whole uncontrollable rage thing going on again this morning and did not want a repeat. The entire day had turned out to be moderately bad, mostly because someone had stolen the wash he was doing at the Laundromat—from the washing machine, no less. He suspected this one guy who had this look about him that said, “Give me a reason to kick your ass.” So Will did, and the cops were called, but he got out of there through the back door and ran all the way to Kmart, where he bought enough underwear and T-shirts to get him through the week. After he reached his apartment, he realized he had bought a five-pack of irregular tighty-whiteys that he would have to return because they were stained, and that’s when he put that hole in his wall.
The girl who had sat down next to him repeated her question. “I said, so what do you do?”
Will said, “I’m a karaoke jockey,” and the girl nodded and then got up and left.
Carolyn materialized at some point after that. She brought Will a plate of mini French-bread pizzas and sat down next to him, trying to arrange the intricate layers of her artfully ragged skirt around her. Will had not realized until then how hungry he was—it had taken all afternoon to patch the hole in the wall and clean up the mess—or that he hadn’t eaten anything since last night.
Carolyn crossed her legs—she was barefoot as usual—and swung her foot back and forth, her anklet of tiny Indonesian prayer bells tinkling softly. She inclined her head toward her feet with a beatific smile—the bells complemented the smooth jazz wonderfully, and everyone knew that smooth jazz was good for balancing the chakras—and said, “Isn’t that a relaxing sound? It always reminds me of that spring I was in Jakarta, helping the natives assemble jewelry for export.”
“Yes, you sent me a postcard from the Jakarta Hilton. Roughing it, as I remember.”
Carolyn said, “Without the jewelry sales, we might not have been able to afford to dig and set up the village’s new well.”
“You helped dig the well?”
“Of course not. It was important that the villagers ‘own’ the project, so we had them do all the labor.”
The jangling of the prayer bells irritated Will, and he laid a rough hand on her ankle. “Could you stop clanging for a minute?”
“The ‘clanging,’ as you put it, is good for balancing the chakras. This is a replica of the same exact anklet worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, down to the pavé diamonds, and everyone knows how serene she is.” She slipped her foot out of his grasp and swung it with gusto. “You could do with a little serenity yourself. Unless you’ve decided to attend that rage-o-holic primal scream therapy I told you about.”
Will thought if he was going to be stuck in some room with a bunch of men, he’d rather be screaming at them than with them, preferably with his hands around someone’s neck.
“I suggested it to Craig, too,” Carolyn said, “but he only screams when I fool with the coolant setting of the wine fridge.” She watched her husband cross the room, carrying a tray of sweating beers in elaborate bottles. He wore a nervous, stretched smile that looked like a frown. “He needs a good, solid scream, not these frail little freak-outs.”
Will said, “Craig had a pretty serious freak-out when you left for Jakarta, having to watch baby Kronos by himself.”
“Please.” She waved away his words. “My mother was here and did everything, and Kronos was a perfect baby. Anyway, speaking of Craig’s freak-outs, now he’s been freaking out all week about the Downers Grove reunion.”
“I can imagine,” said Will.
“Are you going?”
He glanced at her. It was hard for him to visualize far-off events, like the high school reunion two months away. “Maybe. You?”
She nodded. “Did you know Kronos is entering ninth grade there this fall?”
He wondered how many of their other classmates at the fifteenth-year reunion would have a fourteen-year-old preparing to attend the same school. “I wonder if Stan’s going. I haven’t seen him for years.”
“I heard he got married.”
“Another one bites the dust,” he replied automatically. But Carolyn merely gave him the tiny pitying smile she gave all of their single friends.
She said, “I want to see Verity. I hope she’s still around.”
He swallowed the last of the minipizza, which was dry and had sharp crusty edges that irritated his esophageal lining, but then what didn’t when you suffered from eternal acid reflux? His stomach churned and he knew he would have another beer. “Yes,” he said. “I hope so, too.” He did a quick calculation in his head: sixty-three days and sixteen hours and ten minutes until the reunion. That was a long time and now that he had made up his mind to go, he knew he would obsess compulsively about the event until it arrived. He saw Craig pass through a group of zombies from his office and he snapped his fingers. “Craig,” he said, pointing to his glass. “Hit me?”
Like an eager Labrador, Craig grabbed the glass and fetched another Chimay. Familiar twinges began in Carolyn’s jaw as she watched her husband scuttle into the kitchen, and she noted to herself that the radishes on the vegetable platter were terribly bitter.
Will would go to the reunion and if his luck would ever turn, he’d see Verity and Stan, and Craig and Carolyn would be there, and maybe he could figure out how things had ended up the way they had, and it would only take sixty-three days and sixteen hours and nine minutes more. He smiled. See, one minute was gone already.
An hour later, Belgium had exhausted its significance for the night, and Craig began the all-important, repeating-maudlin-things stage of public intoxication. He told Will how sorry he was they never got the chance to watch the war on television together because of the baby.
“Don’t worry about it,” Will said. “There’ll be another one.”
“God, I hope not. Carolyn’s back on the pill. She gave up holistic birth control, which, by virtue of the baby’s arrival, has not really worked out that well.”
“I meant another war, not another baby.” Will had only thirty minutes to sober up before he had to drive back into Chicago from Clarendon Hills for work, and he could not face sobriety with Craig getting mawkish all over the sofa. “Listen, what’s with this nonalcoholic jazz? I hate it. Can’t we change the station?”
Craig looked forlornly at the stereo. He hated it too, and was sure he must have told Carolyn at some point that he hated that station, but it was the only music that calmed the baby during her nightly tantrums. Craig wanted to try having the baby listen to his old CDs, the Psychedelic Furs and Ultravox, but they were locked away in a storage unit somewhere, and Carolyn had never given him the key.
“I don’t think she wants me to change the station,” he said.
Will did not rebuke his friend for his flaccid response and tactfully changed the subject.
But Craig interrupted him; he leaned in and said, “She threw away all my kitchen magnets, Bettie Page and the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still
. And I can’t find the address of where the Furs or the Young Fresh Fellows are. The storage unit, I mean.” He liked the feeling of the blood rushing to what he was sure was a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his gut; he liked that it proved none of this was in his imagination. He said, “Every time I leave the house, she removes every visible sign that I live here.”
Will’s shift at the bar started at ten; he drove back to Chicago drunk and nobody stopped him.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Unimaginable Zero Summer by Leslie Stella. Copyright © 2005 by Leslie Stella. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.