Yet how proud we are,
In daring to look down upon ourselves!
E. B. Browning, Aurora Leigh
Julie and I were driving south on Baron von Steuben Highway. I remember it as an early weekday afternoon—but it's five years ago now. We'd have been on our way home from a weekend visit to my Aunt Gloria and Uncle Horace, who'd chosen to retire to Middlebury instead of Boca Raton or Sun City.
"We're contrarians," Uncle Horace had explained with his customary good cheer. "We like cold more than hot. We're Yankees who root for the Red Sox."
"And old Lefties," Aunt Gloria chimed in. She dressed like a superannuated flower child, but was a lethal Scrabble player, an acerbic political analyst, an irreverent earth mother. I loved my aunt and uncle who were always wonderful to me and my sister. There were presents every birthday and Christmas, good ones, too. That they were childless troubled me and made me curious. My parents ducked the question and told me not to dare ask my aunt and uncle about it. However, when he thought I was old enough, my father explained that Gloria and Horace's response to the world's horrors was not to bring children into it. To me, this made no sense. I couldn't think of any people more likely to rear children who'd fix the world.
It was to visit my aunt and uncle that we left the kids with my in-laws and drove up to Middlebury.
"Slow down," said Julie suddenly.
Up ahead, a red Corolla was weaving between the fast lane and the slow one, going from shoulder to shoulder, at about half the speed limit.
I checked the rear-view mirror before I braked. There was a Jeep behind me. It wasn't too close but I still pumped the brakes a few times to make sure the driver saw I was slowing down. I'd been rear-ended once, which was enough. I lowered the window and waved my left arm down, as if I were pushing at the frigid air or dribbling an imaginary basketball. Message to the driver behind me: Don't Pass.
The Jeep blinked its headlights and slowed.
The road went up a rise and the Corolla, still moving erratically, disappeared over the brow. Then we heard a crash followed by a series of loud thuds.
"Go slower," warned Julie, but I didn't.
We came over the hill. The Toyota was on its side in the median and smoking.
I pulled onto the median and stopped about fifteen yards from the Corolla. There were now flames. I didn't see the Jeep pull in right behind me.
When I jumped out of the car, Julie screamed. She denied it later, but she did.
I ran to the Toyota. Flames was coming from the beneath the engine. Because the car was on its right side, they were right in front of me.
There was a woman inside. She was conscious but looked at me blankly. Shock, I figured.
I struggled with the door. Car doors are hard to open vertically, even a Corolla's. I could budge it, then noticed that the lock was down. Who locks the door on a highway?
Suddenly, a man was behind me, then pulled me back. He had a tire iron. It was tricky but he managed to smash the bottom of the window without hurting the woman, an act both violent and, somehow, gentle. He cleaned away the glass with his elbow and pulled up the lock then, still without a word, together we yanked the door open. I reached in, unbuckled the safety belt and he pulled the woman out and dragged her away. In what seemed like no time at all there was an explosion and the Toyota was engulfed. In the cold air, the heat felt good.
Julie ran over holding what I first took for a flag, then recognized as the woolen plaid from our trunk. The blanket was older than I am. My parents had kept it in the trunk of all their cars, for emergencies—being snowbound, picnicking in damp meadows?—events which, so far as I knew, had never happened.
Julie folded the plaid around the trembling woman.
As if the weight of the thing were too much for her, the woman sank to her knees, then, slowly, lay on her back. She wasn't bleeding. She had streaked hair and a face that was probably pretty before it became hard. Nothing appeared broken. Her eyes didn't focus properly but she was sufficiently with it to start swearing. She slurred her words but they were clear enough, and plenty loud.
"Motherfucking semi sideswiped me," she wailed. "The fuckin' idiot. Shit. Hey, why you bust up my window like that? For Chrissake. Goddamn fuckin' morons. Jesus."
"You see a truck?" I asked the stranger.
Even in a stiff cold wind, you couldn't miss the reek of alcohol.
We got her into the back seat of our car, turned up the heat. It was only about ten minutes before the State Police showed up, all whirling lights and sirens.
I got the details from the upstate local paper. Cherie Lamontagne, twenty-seven, was driving on a suspended license and without insurance. Her blood alcohol level was 1.2 (.8 will get you arrested in most states). Not only wasn't Cherie pleasant, sober, or truthful, she wasn't grateful either. She insisted that a phantom truck had sideswiped her and that somebody should be made to pay the cost of her driver's side window, though, of course, the Corolla was totaled. The police took statements from me, Julie, and the man all this is about, Frank Tadel.
I overheard how he described things to the police, playing down his role and up mine. I thought he was being modest and generous. When the police and the ambulance finally pulled away—again sirens and spinning lights—the three of us stood between our two cars. I asked about what he'd said, why he'd been so modest. I pointed out that both the driver and I would most likely have been fried if he hadn't thought to bring that tire iron. He looked genuinely surprised and insisted that the way he saw things was that I was the hero and he was the sidekick.
"If you hadn't flashed your brake lights, I'd have passed you. Maybe I'd have actually sideswiped her, or, more likely, vice versa. And if you hadn't pulled over, I probably wouldn't have either."
I liked that probably.
"Can I ask your name?"
"Frank Tadel," he said. "Tadel with a D." He turned toward my wife.
"And she's perfect," I added uxoriously, "while I'm not."
"That's putting it mildly," snorted Julie, pleased.
Frank looked at Julie with an odd expression, something on the continuum between surprise and alarm. I didn't know why until much later.
I held out my hand. "I'm Alex, Frank." We shook on it.
"Well," Julie sighed, picked up the plaid and folded it up, "good work, guys."
We determined that we all driving south from Vermont and that we lived pretty close to each other. "We're practically neighbors," I said heartily then suggested we could all use some coffee. Frank agreed to follow me to the next service area. He might easily have refused and, in retrospect, it's surprising that he didn't.
The service building looked larger than it was. It had no tables but there was a counter with stools and we sat down side-by-side, with Julie in the middle.
Julie's a good mixer, a deft hostess. She told Frank what we'd been doing then asked him why he'd been up in Vermont. "We were visiting Alex's aunt and uncle and did a little skiing. Were you up there skiing or visiting or maybe antiquing?"
Frank looked embarrassed. He mumbled that it was just a day trip. "I turned around after I crossed the border."
"I know it's ridiculous and indulgent and wasteful, but sometimes I pick someplace to drive to and then just drive back just to be read to. I don't know why, but I can only listen to books in the car, so if I've got a particularly promising one, I sometimes just take off."
This was a longer speech than either Julie or I expected.
"What's a particularly promising road-trip kind of book?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe a new Donna Leon, Martha Grimes. This trip it was Louise Penny."
"All women mystery writers," observed my well-read and au courant spouse.
Frank didn't reply at once, then gave a little shrug. "Comparative advantage?" he said.
"You mean because we're devious?" Julie asked, deploying that we and smiling the arch smile I knew to be a double warning.
"Devious? I don't know about that. I just think they're good writers. They're humane and," he searched for a phrase, "morally smart."
Julie wasn't to be diverted. "Yet their detectives are all men. And in other countries."
"There's no empathy without imagination," observed Frank. It sounded like he was quoting somebody.
I was content to say nothing about what I didn't know. It was enough to watch Frank taking Julie's examination. He passed, though not with an A.
It felt companionable there at the counter as we sipped our lattes and americanos. Near-death experiences will do that, I expect.
Frank didn't say much, having confessed already. Julie told him that we had two children, both girls. Annie would have been seven at the time and Lizzy four. I took a picture from my wallet and showed to him. Frank hardly reacted at all. I think he may have nodded at Julie. She was seated between us and I didn't have a clear look at his face. When I asked her about it later, Julie thought it over and said he might have smiled at the snapshot, but it looked more like a grimace.
It would be fair to say that Frank and I hit it off, not surprising, given what we'd just been through; but he seemed a little wary of Julie.
After we finished our coffees, we went our ways. Julie gave me her critique of Frank on the way home.
"Definitely something the matter there. He's a bit mysterious," she said, "but I suppose he's okay. Interesting that he had that tire iron at the ready, don't you think?" And that, I thought, was that.
I was surprised to get a phone call from Frank Tadel a couple days later, just after dinner.
"It's Frank Tadel, from the accident. I looked up your number," he said apologetically. "I hope you don't mind my calling. I can call back if you're eating?"
"No, no. Dinner's all done. Good to hear from you, Frank. Anything the matter? State cops stop by or anything?"
"No, nothing like that. I was just wondering—do you ever watch football?"
"Sure. It's the playoffs. It's pretty much a civic responsibility."
"I'm not really much of a fan, but I'd like to watch the game anyway."
There was a pause as if he were working up his nerve.
"You wouldn't like to come over this Sunday, would you, and watch the game with me?"
Julie hates football, wants the sport outlawed and, when she catches me watching it, delivers science-infused screeds on CTE with which it's impossible to disagree.
"Okay," I said. "Sure."
He gave me his address and directions and asked if I'd like pizza or wings or something else and if I liked beer. I could imagine him reading from a checklist. I said pizza would be perfect and I'd bring the beer.
"Good. You'll be my first visitor in three months other than the plumber." When I told Julie about the conversation, she said Frank was telling me he was lonesome, in need of male companionship.
"He didn't invite me, did he?"
"You wouldn't go anyway."
Julie laughed. "For football and pizza? Only as penance."
Frank Tadel lived in a little green-shuttered ranch house in a cul-de-sac. The squared-off hedges in front looked laser-cut; in back what looked like a brace of arbor vitaes stood equidistant from a big old maple tree. The house looked as if the painters and roofers had just left.
It was the same inside, neat as a needle. I wondered if he'd tidied it up for me.
Frank opened the door before I knocked. "Come on in."
"How've you been?" I asked at the door.
"Can't complain, though my wife says I'm pretty good at it."
I handed him the six-pack of Bass Ales I'd brought and he took them into the kitchen.
He showed me around. Everything looked like he'd been expecting a Sergeant Major. I wondered if he tidied up just for me.
We each took a Bass and he poured them into beer mugs he took out of the freezer. Then we settled down in the immaculate, lint-free living room to watch the game on his small flat-screen. We each took one end of the leather couch. Two cork coasters had been set out on the coffee table. I repressed an urge to take off my shoes and put my feet up on the table, just to see what would happen. We didn't say much during the first two quarters. The game wasn't exciting. Two players were taken into the little tent to be checked for concussions. "Out of sight, out of mind," I said.
At halftime Frank said, "Time to eat" and we went into the kitchen. He took a large pizza out of its cardboard box, laid it on a baking sheet, and stuck it in the oven to warm up. I cracked another couple of ales. To my surprise, Frank handed me three big trivets. "For the pizza," he said. "The coffee table. Oh, wait." He took two dinner plates from a cupboard and a pair of linen napkins from a drawer and handed them over, too. I laid everything out in the living room and looked at the books on the shelves, all arranged alphabetically. There were no photographs on display, but he had three rather good pictures on the walls, two original paintings and an attractive print depicting a man and a little girl in an idealized Impressionist garden. I'd never seen it before. Recently, I went looking for it on the Internet. The painting is by Berthe Morisot who titled it Eugène Manet and His Daughter in the Garden. This title doesn't disclose that Eugène is the artist's husband and the little girl her child, Julie.
Frank came in with and the hot pie on a big platter and set it down, after adjusting the trivets.
Over the pizza, I complimented his housekeeping.
"I admire how you take care of this place. Everything's in terrific shape. So tidy."
To my astonishment, this compliment elicited a disproportionate response from my previously laconic host, a lengthy, heated monologue. It was quite a revelation.
He rubbed his chin. "Tidy?" he scoffed, then he got to his feet and started pacing, caged-lion style, between the coffee table and the TV.
"More a disease than a virtue, compulsive tidiness—the orderly disorder. Funny, isn't it? I wanted to be, you know, one of those guys people would say had a desk with open books all over it, papers strewn on the floor, corners piled high with more books, heaps of unopened letters and uncashed checks. I wanted to have a sink full of dirty dishes and crusted pots, socks under the bed, pants on the floor, shirts over the chairs. I wanted to be absent-minded, the kind of guy people would shake their heads over and say he really could do with a woman's touch, a guy who'd never heard of a Dustbuster. But you're right—everything's in its place. I never misplace anything. I'd probably have a meltdown if I couldn't find a bookmark or the can opener. I'm a fussy bachelor and soon I'll be a fussy old bachelor. Pathetic. I blame my mother. I was a sickly child and she was terrified I'd die and so she smothered me with TLC. Not really her fault. You have to understand. My parents were immigrants from the bad third of Germany but, before they got out, they lost my older sister—maybe that's why they got out. Lotte died of pneumonia before her third birthday. I was kept out of school for a week if I ran a temperature. I couldn't go on a jungle gym, let alone climb a tree—let alone play football. My mother's housekeeping was obsessive, something out of Vermeer. She saw germs everywhere, as if they were cockroaches. She took the wild out of me, annihilated my carelessness, killed off the messy anarchist I was born to be. You know, I can't even leave the toilet seat up because of her."
"Was your father the same?"
"No. He crushed my confidence, though he probably wanted to do just the opposite."
"It's an old American story, really. First generation. He wanted me to act like a German boy at home, be respectful, docile, call him Vati and say Jawohl. But he also wanted me to rise über alles, to excel in the new country but not assimilate. Nothing I did was good enough. An A- would do; my friends were all lazy; Mutti was making me a Schwächling, a weakling. I was like grain ground between a pair of millstones, a soft one and a hard one."
To say Frank Tadel was a man who didn't approve of himself would be like saying that God took exception to Sodom. Frank's wasn't just the sort of critical self-examination that can be healthy and improving; he disliked himself. Listening to this first explosion and all the subsequent self-indictments, I even wondered if his self-criticism might be pathological. People who are just modest or humorously self-denigrating rarely disapprove of how they actually live. For them self-criticism isn't in the least incompatible with vanity. I don't think that could be said of Frank, at least not when I knew him and became the backboard for his forehands and backhands of self-disgust.
All I said to this first performance was, "I see." I didn't know what else to say. I couldn't say I understood or that I disagreed or laugh politely and say that he had to be exaggerating.
Luckily, the second half of the game was starting. I picked up the remote and pressed the mute button. Then I tore off another slice of pizza.
"This is really good. I shouldn't have another piece, but I can't resist," I said.
Frank glared at me a moment, then sat down, guzzled some more Bass and started in again.
"I could stuff myself with pizza and beer and gallons of ice cream," he said. "It wouldn't make any difference. Look at me. I've always been underweight, though the doctor told my mother I'd fill out once I hit puberty. Get this. When I was in fourth grade, the school nurse showed up at our house. Poor Mutti was puzzled then devastated when the nurse finally admitted why she'd come by. She wanted to see what kind of home I came from—meaning whether I was getting enough to eat. This was my über-protective mother, you understand, who plied me with German dishes with the specific density of lead."
Frank didn't look all that thin to me, just slim.
All this over-the-top self-criticism might have been taken for ironic, even humorous, like those comedians who make themselves the butt of their own jokes; but it didn't feel like that at all. He wasn't being disarming. His tone was too vehement. It all went far beyond the Vermeerish housekeeping.
Julie asked me about my visit and I gave her the rundown. She said, "He's an odd one, all right. People who don't like themselves sometimes like themselves too much."
"What's that mean?"
She shrugged "Perfectionism? Oh, I don't know. Are you going to see him again?"
I tried three times to get him to come to dinner. I even had Julie make one of the calls to invite him. He always found an excuse.
"I think maybe he's afraid of you," I said to Julie.
"Don't be ridiculous. It's obvious."
"What he wants is a male friend—not to become a family friend."
Frank and I met for lunch once in a while or a Sunday morning breakfast.
On the first of our breakfasts, over waffles and bacon, I asked him about his work. "I'm a freelance technical writer."
"So, you're a writer."
He gave me a bitter laugh. "Dostoyevsky blew me away in tenth grade. I wanted to be a writer after that. But not a technical writer."
I was thinking that Dostoyevsky's study probably wasn't either neat or tidy.
"I've always wondered," I said. "What exactly does a technical writer write?"
Frank sighed, bored by my question and about to be by his answer. "I've done a lot of user manuals and software guides. Sometimes I have to make graphs and draw blueprints of gadgets. It's a challenge. I've done a ton of SOPs and SLAs and RFPs."
"Sorry. SOPs are Standard Operating Procedures, SLAs are Service Level Agreements, and RFPs are Requests for Proposals. The most fun—and it's not much—are the legal disclaimers."
"What's the least fun?
"Ouf. The annual reports."
"Not exactly Crime and Punishment."
"Just the crimes," said Frank glumly.
"So, you're good?"
"If you're freelance, you've got to be."
"Why'd you take it up, tech writing?"
"Money, of course. I needed the money."
"You never heard Dr. Johnson's famous line? No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. I would gladly have been a blockhead. I'd have gotten by, but I didn't always live alone."
This was news. "You going to tell me about it?"
"Rather not. Maybe some other time."
"Do you ever write, you know, other things? Poems, stories?"
He shook his head. "Not anymore. Too lazy, too untalented—a lethal combination, even for a blockhead. Tell me about your job."
I'm a corporate lawyer. Neither of us had any interest in what I had to say.
As an exercise, I've put together a list of all the things I can remember for which Frank took himself to task during one or another of our conversations, usually more than once. The catalogue isn't exhaustive, but it is tediously long. Here are a just few examples:
- That twenty years ago he took to cutting his own hair, not out of thrift, but simply to avoid
barber shops. It's not just the small talk he couldn't abide but the personal service, the
intimacy of it. For the same the same reason, he favors restaurants without waitstaff. The
idea of a professional massage fills him with horror.
- He regrets that default mood is gloom and doom. "I came across a quote from Ionesco. He said nothing makes him so pessimistic as
- While fond of certain German writers, painters, and composers, he can't overcome his aversion to the German language. He quoted John Fowles to me: As French is to love, German is to death. He feels he dishonors his parents by hating not only their native tongue but even more the German name they gave him, the name of his mother's beloved father.
"I hated being called Friedrich. I refused to answer to it. Can you imagine how that
must have pained my mother? In second grade, I threw a tantrum until Mrs.
Debeque promised to make all my classmates call me Frank."
The last time I saw Frank was a week before he moved to California. He phoned and surprised me not only with the news of his imminent departure but by sounding elated. He wanted to treat me to dinner that night at an expensive steak house.
"They'll have waitstaff," I cautioned.
He laughed. "I can handle it."
As we settled onto the soft leather of our spacious booth, Frank said, full of smiles and energy, said, "This is a farewell banquet in more way than one. I'm going to give up meat. I'm going to change my life. I'm going to say goodbye to all that."
"I hope it's all for the good, Frank. California. It's a big change."
A waitress came over and Frank ordered us Laphroaigs.
"Look, you've helped me a lot. More than you know. I'm grateful and always will be. I'd say let's keep in touch but we probably won't."
"Well, an occasional email would be nice, just to let me know how you're doing out there. I do worry, you know."
"About me killing myself?"
"You never worried I'd do it?"
"Well, let's just say I worried."
"Then worry no more. I'm going out there to be with my daughter. That's why I'm moving. She needs me."
"Your daughter?" This was news.
He nodded and grinned. "She's twenty-one now, about to graduate from USC. Her mother and stepfather were unfortunately killed in a traffic accident last week. I've already found us a house online. My daughter's name is Julie, same as your good wife's."
My head was spinning.
When the meat came, Frank told me the following story—his version, of course. It may account for much, though, in my opinion, not everything.
"I met Ellen when she was nineteen and I was twenty. It was in a calculus class and we were both virgins, believe it or not. Anyway, I know I was. After some serious discussion, we agreed it was time that came to an end and we made love. We liked it and we did it every chance we got. Ellen got pregnant so we got married. But Ellen wasn't happy. It was all my fault. It wasn't just that I was too young. I'm just not cut out for marriage; I wasn't any good at it. But I adored the baby. Maybe that was part of it, adoring Julie too much; I don't know. You said your Julie's perfect—well, so was, is, mine. Well, before long Ellen found somebody else, somebody better. I met him. Nice guy. The divorce wasn't hard. I gave in on everything, but insisted on visiting rights. I got two weeks a year and alternate weekends. I got Thanksgivings but not Christmases. Nowhere near enough, but my lawyer said it was the best I could expect. On one of our weekends I took Julie up to Maine, to Camden. We had a great time. On the way back, Julie began to cry and said she didn't want to go home. Some argument with Ellen. Her crying was hard to take. I was supposed to have her back by six o'clock on the Sunday. But instead I took a right turn and drove all the way to the Berkshires. I don't know why, but I didn't call Ellen. Big mistake. Colossal, idiotic mistake. I found a hotel with an indoor pool and we played hooky for three days. We climbed Greylock, ate at the Red Lion Inn, visited the Mount, Edith Wharton's place, toured Tanglewood, hiked a couple of trails and went to the movies at night. It was October so the foliage was glorious. When I finally took Julie home, Ellen was beside herself. Justifiably, of course. Her husband had a few words for me, too. They went to court and got my visiting rights revoked. Then her the husband got this great job offer in Los Angeles. I didn't take it well... But never mind. Now Julie needs me. And God knows I need her."
That was last year. I haven't heard anything from Frank. I sent him a couple of emails but they bounced back. I hope things are working out with him and his daughter but, somehow, I doubt it.
Julie's less uncertain. "The poor girl. What was he thinking?"
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg's Twitch, and Petites Suites; two books of essays, Professors at Play and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; a book of verse, Fifty Poems; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. Hsi-wei Tales, a collection of Chinese stories, and Intuition of the News, a book of non-Chinese stories, are forthcoming.