On the way home from Gene Cassidy’s, Dean was out of sorts in so many ways they competed for his attention, the way his kids used to when they actually wanted him to notice them. Clearly those days were gone forever. So fucking be it!
This last conclusion pretty much sums up Dean’s frame of mind on the way home that night.
Of the many forms his foul disposition took, the most leadening was guilt, a multimodal regret that, at times, sunk farther, to a bitter remorse. He felt hollowed-out. Add to this the taste in his mouth from a few more acid-reflux belches, and the mood plunges even farther down, into that hideous awareness that his midlife was not only going to be hell, but was an early arrival and looked like it was here to stay. Till, that is, old age pushes it out, and then life would get even worse.
The full moon over Richardson Bay contrasted with his sour mood. It was later than he had wanted it to be, this return from the little excursion to Gene’s. He had needed a strong cup of black tea and a half-nap on the sofa after the three pints of Gene’s powerhouse porter.
The depression Dean wallowed in was exacerbated by the post-porter slump. Perhaps you know this experience. Not necessarily from porter, but from any alcohol consumed in sufficient quantity. If the buzz wears off before we sleep, it can leave us despondent. The easy story we tell ourselves is that we have flattened out after the party, the dull mood is but a result of the high that served us so well but has, as all good things must, now gone away. But this torpor is often accompanied by a grey-faced confrontation with some truth-bearing part of our minds that warns us about that ever-lurking, dark-blue thing, that sadness that wants to crash the feel-good life.
This special fatigue cold-cocks the bouncer that is stationed to keep that sadness out before it spoils the chance of something good happening. What if that good thing happens and we are too bummed to know it?
Dean knew how to navigate his way out of the tunnel of despond. Contrition. Compensation. Sacrifice.
He did not have anything left in him after the climax of the evening and not only of the evening but also the previous two months. The drama had reached its apex with Gene poised above the paper-wrapped cylinder, wet knife-tip stabbing at the rough blue paper. As Dean called an end to the surgery, as Gene set both knife and little cylinder on the coffee table, the slump had begun. Down, down, down sunk the mood of Dean Colfax.
The three objects were soon returned to the little leather bag. Gene’s hands were compliant, but the look on his face betrayed something less than full compliance. This was the part of Gene that made his custodianship of the deerskin bag more than a little dangerous.
For as long as he had known Gene – and, going back to when they met in graduate school, this was 17 years – Dean had seen his friend’s ethical guidelines shift. We can easily say that this is not so unusual with anyone, over time, but with Gene the shifts could be temporary and situational, opportunistic and self-serving. There had been half a dozen affairs, including two Maggie knew about, since they married.
Dean could see from his friend’s face, as he put the objects back into the little bag, that Gene felt cheated out of satisfying his curiosity. Could he be trusted to hold this stuff? Gene did seem to have great respect for Dean, the kind that makes honoring a request like this one vastly different from the oft-rescinded marital pledge to eschew erotic variety.
After Gene complied with Dean’s request, he said, “Just playing devil’s advocate here, OK?”
Then he presented the same arguments Dean had told himself and had already shared with Gene as justification for not giving the boy the bag: the safety of Harlan; the boy’s charisma; his beauty, hard to use that word to describe one’s son, but truth is truth; his innocent ignorance about the deviant behaviors of some of our more twisted citizens. Blake could be one of these sick predators who bugger a boy and then kill him.
Dean was mature enough to accept his son, and unconditionally, should the boy come out as gay. But he wanted it to be Harlan’s choice and not the choice of someone who had a warped fantasy about him.
But when Gene replayed these same protective notions that Dean had presented earlier in the evening as the most solid reason to open up the three little objects, it sounded to Dean like his agenda was different than mere protection of an innocent boy. The words seemed to disguise some less-than-noble urges, with a selfish curiosity the primary one.
Regrettably, Dean’s thorough account of Blake and their conversation at JavaPort, the indecipherable exchange between son and stranger, the calligraphed name, the deerskin bag and its recent adventure, together worked like some multimedia hype that inflamed Gene’s inherently inquisitive nature. His curiosity had grown big and steroidal even before it was tantalized by the bag and its three mysterious objects.
But it was Dean’s kid and Dean’s little brown bag (sort of, if possession really is nine-tenths of the law). So Dean had the final say. The still-wrapped objects went back into the little brown bag.
“I’ll find the perfect place to hide this, man. Trust me.”
On his drive home, as Dean played over this sentence, his foul mood went greyer, nastier. But what could be done about it? Under the full moon, now shining on San Francisco Bay, he settled on the old standby: contrition via compensation and sacrifice. The Golden Gate was true to its name that night, as the black, wrinkled canvas where the night bay mingled with the Pacific Ocean was painted with a golden oil, oil of moonlight, or, really, sunlight held and cooled and spilled down upon the restless black waters.
The gold-on-black luster took Dean’s eyes off the road surface where they belonged, to look out beyond the edge of the Western World.
Strangely inviting. But Dean sought the best means to contrition, and setting the brake on the Prius and leaping into the void was not one of them. He caught himself slowing and speeding and slowing while doing moonstruck penance for his catalog of bad behaviors. Can one truly perform an act of penance while attempting to explain to a Highway Patrol officer that the three pints had worn off long ago? Most likely the outcome would just pack more guilt in.
Compensation. Sacrifice. The tried and true. And steady, inconspicuous driving.
As he took a right on Divisadero and began the steep climb through Pacific Heights, he felt his spirits rise, slightly, almost not at all, like the recovery from a health condition aided by a placebo when we ask, Is something better or am I just imagining it?
The full moon now hid behind scattered clouds, rapid ones, that gave and took moonlight from the city as they clustered and broke apart to form new clusters.
As this slight elevation in mood transcended his self-loathing, Dean got a flash: he would cave in, for Scilla. She would love him for it. He would abandon his adamant refusal to lend Flo and Hank the money they needed.
Mitchell, OK, he’d shake his head in disgust. But, hey, no skin off his ass, really, unless Scilla pressures Artis to have the Cartfalers join the Colfaxes in their support of Flo and Hank. But that matter is between Mitchell and Artis. Oh, to be sure, Mitchell will sneer at Dean for caving, vent a little derisive disbelief that Dean could be so cocky in bonding with him, the stern husband, only to fold, apparently because his wife was the stronger of them (as everyone in the family must have thought). Dean just being Dean, no surprise there.
“To hell with him if that is what he thinks of me,” Dean declared aloud to some inner character he knew well but whose essence he did not understand and whose existence he would have denied if queried. To himself, he said, I do not live with Mitchell, I live with Scilla. I owe Mitchell nothing.
Dean and Mitchell would likely go back to their previous perfunctory conversation at the obligatory family gatherings: Giants/49ers/weather/traffic/ cars. It had worked for years. It would work again.
Scilla had burned through a day in hell. She did not know that Dean had been so careless as to let her go out the door and down the steps to Marisa’s idling Honda without telling her about Mitchell’s agreement with Hank, to allow Flo to break the news to her sister later. Mitchell would honor Flo’s need and not mention this call to his wife.
But it would be Scilla who broke the news to Artis later that night on Skype. Looking back on this, Scilla thought Artis was playacting. Poor Priscilla, left in the dark, inadvertently, yes, but in the dark nonetheless. Minds darkened by ignorance often entertain distortions of reality.
A day in hell. Scilla had worked around her fury, snapped at a few people but otherwise endured her discomfort unnoticed. Shackled in her inferno, she imagined calling her sisters snide bitches for being in league with one another against her. Much of her free mental time was spent supporting her conviction that she would not authorize one dime of the Colfax family funds to go to legal aid for that rotten doctor.
And Christmas? Why would she let either of the treasonous sisters into her house for anything? That would be a sure way to ruin the most beautiful holiday.
When Dean brought his mission of contrition up the stairs from the garage that Wednesday night, after taking off his coat and lowering the manbag to the nearest chair, lighter now without its little hard-on, he clapped his hands together a few times, kissed his wife, and held her face in his palms, the better to give her his gift. ”Scilla,” he said, “I think we ought to give Hank and Flo whatever you determine to be a good sum. It’s up to you.”
Scilla pulls her face from his affectionate hands and turns from him with disgust.
“Why would we want to give those hippies one dime of our money?”
“Because…” But Dean couldn’t finish.
No matter how long I live with her, I will never, ever figure out this woman, he said silently to some inner guy who understood what he meant.
To Scilla he nodded deliberately, slowly. Then he said, “OK. If that’s what you want.”
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