Selfish, selfish—at first she might have killed him herself. How like him, Claire Klein thought. Care as a diligent reckoning of accounts. Deeds and notes, decks of passbooks, rights and assignments, sheaves of bonds, stacks of fat brown envelopes… Look at this, indicative for her of time’s collapse, a souvenir check for $28.08, void now for almost two generations, their share of the settlement in a class-action against the phone company when it was still known as Pacific Bell. It was as if her own life, too, had been reduced to paper— the precocious child and imbecile bride, the honey-bunny and chatelaine, not to mention the mother of royals. Her uterus had been a great success. Maybe she would have it mounted. The perfect Carol, the perfect Ruth, the gorgeous Ron, each a distinguished eugenic achievement, world travelers with perfect teeth. Skiers. Equestrians. She stood in the mirror and struck a pose. Now who’s that pretty girl? There should be hag cotillions for broads like us, she thought. Low-light revels. The drug companies could sponsor them.
The funeral was fabulous of course, disgusting. Suddenly she was the widow of a legend, the shopping center pioneer who would shadow power company trucks to discover where the new lines were going in; the avuncular Teddy Klein whose golden rule was “Any schmuck can spend money;” the visionary Teddy Klein who had always viewed covered malls with suspicion; even the saintly Teddy Klein, if the stories could be credited, who would actually look out for his investors.
“That’s no small thing,” one of his eulogists insisted. “You’ll hear people say he worked the low end of the market, the strip malls, the little retail stores, but the truth was he made it hard for people to lose money. You could ask anybody.”
“Thank you,” Claire Klein said. “You’re kind to say so.”
“I’m not kidding you.”
“I know it. Thank you. We’ll all miss him.”
Only how many times can she hear these stories? Each time is like burying him again.
Yet weeks later the condolences continue to dribble in with their solemn payloads of sympathy and reassurance. His partners, the lawyers, the mortgage bankers, the investment trusts, the analysts—sorry for your loss, they tell her, as if they know what they’re talking about. Losses for these people were charged against gains. Real loss was a permanent hole in the world.
Not that they were insincere, Claire knew. They simply didn’t know what else to say. She knew this because she didn’t know what to say either. The problem, it seemed, was that life no longer equipped us for these eventualities. We didn’t know how not to be optimistic. Even death was supposed to be the beginning of something. But finality confused and frustrated people. She could see them struggling with the imposition, reaching for a sorrow that wasn’t there and settling finally for the rue of failing as mourners. It wasn’t grief and had nothing to do with Teddy, but it wasn’t bad. O.K., Claire thought, thank you, good job, settling down now for come what may—compassion, pity, vulgar curiosity, offers of prayers and casseroles, luncheon invitations, country weekends. Everyone is doing all they can. Call, don’t be proud, it’s important, they tell her. And if it’s not important, call anyway, affirm a connection, as if this is her new role in the world, providing opportunities for other people to feel useful.
It didn’t matter. The real funeral hadn’t come until later, when she could find no trace of him in the laundry hamper. No socks? No T-shirts? What was the bastard walking around in? No briefs?
Well, let me be affable, Claire Klein resolved. I’ll be comfortably retired, languishing, but with children who visit, manageable ailments, interests to absorb me. Perhaps something in calf for the lady? A table for one? She just needed to develop that assessing look, that sweep of eye like a reaper’s knife. Where’s the manager, who’s in charge here!
It reminds her, she has to update the insurance riders. Teddy’s facilities people could deal with the homes but Claire herself would have to manage the collectibles, the pieces he used to call her tchotchkehs, her knickknacks, tolerating her passions without needing to understand them, much as he endured her need for ordinary conversation. He adjusted his attitude quickly enough when she showed him the appraisals, though, didn’t he? She could still summon that look on his face. It was embarrassing, he admitted. She was out-performing the S&P.
In the kitchen Claire consulted the digital clock on the wall-oven and thought she might have tea. Also she needed to organize the refrigerator. Picking through the shelves, clearly things were out of hand. Did we need anything? What did we need?
We yet. Maybe it would be better if we stayed in today. We could even have popcorn for dinner. Who would know?
Oddly, for a short time she had entertained a doubtful impulse to contact the friends of her childhood, former grammar-school classmates, bunkies from summer camp, none of whom had been particularly close, yet in retrospect all seemed more real for her now than any of the people currently in her life. Surely this meant something. To live her childhood again, bored out of her mind? You’d have thought her youth had been simple and pleasant.
It was safe, though, wasn’t it? Nobody up and died on you.
That’s what made the situation so awkward, she thought. Things would have been different if only she was dead, too, but this way what was she supposed to do?
At her dressing table, consciously restrained, Claire Klein attends patiently to her dignity, carefully feathering those vivid demarcations between makeup and reality with the modest expectation that if she cannot be dazzling at least let her not look ridiculous. In any event she will not be one of those frantic old ladies who cannot accept what they see in the mirror. Is any of this working? Who knows, and for that matter who cares? The important thing is to maintain focus, to keep appointments, to do one thing at a time. Repeatedly she checks the invitation tucked into the mirror-frame, an estate sale in Woodland Hills, wryly amused that even her social life these days is provided by the dead.
But why does everything take so long? Care like this feels pathological. Why all this fussy hesitation, this picking things up and putting them down again? Merely passing from one room to another seems to oblige an infinity of preparation, and then once she gets there—consternation and tableau, like a standing joke, the widow asking, why am I here?
Through the closed windows she hears the racketing of the grounds crew and briefly parts the curtains to see what they’re up to, two stunted-looking, flat-headed men, crushed-down and neckless like a pair of pre-Columbian terra-cottas, one with a gas-driven leaf blower strapped to his back, the other wielding a cutting tool longer than he is with a whirling blur at the business end. As usual she feels an impulse to offer them something, icewater, soft drinks, but where that might go she can only imagine.
Everyone had their hands out of course—at the door, in the mail, on the phone. How could you not be onto their schemes? People would call to solicit charitable pledges, yet for some reason they would need her social security number, a credit card. For reference purposes. For verification. Could a person really be that stupid with loneliness, to lose all sense at the sound of a voice? Not Claire Klein. Hellos are wasted on these morons. “Who is this,” she asks. “How did you get this number?”
Oh, how nice, her baby-girl, Teddy’s masterpiece, the dauntless Carol, your basic have-it-all gal. Marriage and career, kids and friends, a list-maker then by necessity, with an appropriately binary brain. Yes or no—don’t screw her around.
“Mama, how are you,” she asks severely, the truth now, no monkey business.
“I’m fine, why not?”
“Mama, please, you’re not listening. How do you feel?”
“Carol, I’m not dead yet,” a joke for God’s sake, but Carol breathing in and out needs a moment to decide how she feels about this.
“Mama, listen to me. I can’t right now but later if you want I can take you shopping.”
“I’ll be out later.”
“Mama, why are you being like this? It’s out of the question right now.”
And the irony was that Carol had always been the smartest of the brood, a surgical intelligence, long since exchanged for a merciless efficiency. Was it easier for her this way? No mind, just a schedule?
“You don’t know?” Carol asks. “How can you say you don’t know?”
Well, consider the bright side, Claire Klein thought. Now each of the Kleins could have a private and indisputable version of history, for each of them a separate and perfect, imaginary god, and for her there would be the video disks, thirty-eight years of holiday dinners, births and birthdays, graduations, weddings, industry awards and ribbon cuttings.
How is it possible, Claire Klein wonders, that even when she’s doing nothing, everything feels of interruption?
Both girls fret that she’s too much alone, but there’s a comfort in solitude that young people seem incapable of understanding. It permits her to think, a feeling of luxury about owning the time. I need this, she tells them, like learning to be unnecessary. A little humility wouldn’t do her any harm.
But the old habits seem wired in like the rhythms that were supposed to abide in muscle. How did you stop waiting for someone? If he was going to be late, why couldn’t he call?
Not that he failed to show up now and then, actually not so unlike his home-comings of the past, Claire waking to find him slouched at the foot of the bed, bowed with fatigue, then turning to her with an exhausted look and raising a restraining hand to forestall her questions. Obviously it was a long story and obviously he was in no shape just then to tell it. ‘Later, maybe tomorrow,’ he would gesture.
Afterward these recollections all seemed a bit mad, but on reflection it was only the words that confused her. Absence had a presence of its own, didn’t it? Vacancy, too, could take up space.
The phone again, this is her life−Charlotte Boxer this time, no doubt with another geezer du jour. Friends are friends, Claire sighs, but maybe this is the problem. For a few cents a month she could have caller-ID, but where would she be without surprises?
It’s to Charlotte that Claire owes her own new-found popularity, one of those cheerfully open-minded women who seem to pinball through their days in a frenzy of dinging bells and guttering Christmas-colored lights. It was Charlotte who advised Claire recently that losing a husband could be good for your ego. You had to think more about yourself then.
“You got a second?”
Famous last words. Charlotte had a naturally affectionate nature, easy to get along with, a slut in other words, but men felt young with her, Charlotte said, and you could see how for Charlotte this would be something to be good at.
“But you have to hear this. How long could it take?”
“Charlotte, I’m not interested.”
“Yet, you mean.”
“Charlotte, what did I ever do to you?”
“But you have to hear this.”
“Make it fast.”
“You’re getting me all confused.”
“Charlotte, I have to go.”
“But I just got you.”
“Charlotte, I’m late already.”
“All right! Listen,” she whispers, breathless enough for both of them, yet what else could such breathlessness imply but another knight-errant petitioning to do battle, to smite the dragon and claim the prize, Claire Klein being both dragon and prize in one tidy package. “Trust me, darling, you need this,” Charlotte assures her.
What she needs though are some new friends; not close friends of course, nor even good friends—friends of that order would require an exchange of secrets—but adequate friends, accepting friends. Above all let them be quiet friends, people without intentions, Trappist friends, mutely sympathetic.
Did they think she was crazy? For suddenly there were men in her life— to protect her, they said, to care for her. As if all had studied the same mating manual. This worked, the instructions assured them, like changing shampoos. Women needed to be held, to be treasured. “I want to watch you sleep,” one of Charlotte’s referrals tells her, and on the spot Claire’s insomnia rises to another level.
“Thank you, I can look out for myself,” Claire informs him.
And why would they care for her? It seemed so arbitrary. When she laughed brokenly at their attempts to amuse they assumed it was because her sense of humor was uncertain. Its nervousness moved them. She was uncomfortable about enjoying herself.
But she wasn’t ambivalent. She wanted to go home. Being pleasant to these men seemed an exercise in hypocrisy.
Or adultery? That was at dinner one night with another developer, applying it seemed for that empty place at the table. “What do you do for relaxation,” the man had asked. “I mourn,” Claire said. “It comforts me.”
In time, though, she learned to embroider those awkward moments with a maidenly diffidence. I’m not ready, she would say. I want to be fair with you. I’ve decided to get some counseling first.
They liked that, she discovered. It made a flattering picture. She would have some work done and then present herself for inspection.
“You may be selling yourself short,” one of them said.
“Well, you may be right. May I call you? I just need some time.”
Still, most simply wanted to know how she slept by herself, like the Hun who had had the audacity to advise her that they weren’t children so could waive the formalities.
But it was the formalities she wanted, she told him, candle-light and courtly manners, French doors opened to a flagged terrace with a proper moon and a scent of gardenia.
“I like a good sport,” he told her.
Yes, well, she would have to be, wouldn’t she, Claire Klein thought. That had been the one who owned a fleet of limousines, her hero-elect in espadrilles and Sansabelt shorts, a luau shirt and hair curling out wherever it sensed light. A man like this needed a groundskeeper. What did he want with her? What did he expect?
“I’m not a complicated man,” he shrugged. “There are things I like and there are things I don’t.”
Also a believer in love at first sight if she could believe her ears. Age seemed their permission to dispense with gesture, in effect with civility, in favor of something her suitors called common sense, in effect barbarism, laziness, tantrum tactics. God knew she was not self-important, but God knew she had not lived this long to be treated indifferently. He shrugged at this, and then waited irritably, tapping time on the steering wheel while she let herself out of the car.
“Why do you wanna give me such a hard time? What does it get you?”
“What would I get for putting up with you?” Claire Klein asked. It seemed a reasonable question for a businessman’s widow. What do I get? What’s in it for me?
He had to laugh. “Well, I can see this is going no-place. Probably I ate too much anyway. Listen,” he said, feathering the gas pedal, “Call me—we’ll go someplace.”
They suggested being friends to her, but they took their illusions too seriously for friendship. They weren’t even lonely in a recognizable way. What did they need her for, some pretense of vitality? Were they more alive for themselves that way? What did they see when they looked at her, a live-in nurse, someone to keep their prescriptions straight? She could hear herself being introduced at their bridge tournaments: “Remember Teddy Klein? This is Claire.”
Maybe one day she would simply stop eating, she thought. It would be best that way. It wouldn’t have to involve anyone.
She saw then that it must have taken a painful courage for Teddy to live as deliberately as he had done. Brat that he was, it would have pleased him to know that she remembered his force. She had truly known him—that was the lingering inequity she resented, that she’d accepted the necessity of his terrible single-mindedness, but for him it was always as if she was too complicated to engage; nuanced, he would say, but what it came down to was why bother? When she complained of missing him he would take it as a compliment. “Look,” he would sigh, “just tell me what you want,” as if expecting her to present him with a contractor’s punch-list, and as a result she had lacked for nothing except possibly the suggestion that she was worth a bit of trouble.
But that too was manly in its wretched way, wasn’t it? Ultimately even marriage was a zero sum, a negotiation, a cut to the chase, while for her a choice between love and reliability. Respect, when it came, came from other women.
She tried to think with his mind then, with that tough, limber brain. It summoned his obduracy, his intolerance of compromise, yet these memories seemed moonlit compared to the lugs her girlfriends sent over. Were these what Teddy would have lived to become? But there was no correspondence between her husband and these tedious men. It had been her parents who socialized with clods like these. Lodge brothers. Horse players. This was the dull greed Teddy Klein had saved her from. They were courteous and attentive for an hour, but then they would tire and complain about feeling neglected.
“Where’s that waiter,” one had demanded, as though it might be her responsibility to see that his supper was put on the table.
That was another thing about Teddy, she could listen to him. When they met, through friends at a holiday party, she knew him at once for what he was, another of those second-generation roughnecks, clearly capable of anything he could get away with, yet the simple clarity of his plans saved his ambitions from seeming arrogant. Given his strengths it surprised Claire to discover how much he relied on her, but it seemed that he, too, needed someone to trust.
Except that he was dead then, what did he owe her? It was true that for the sake of peace she had made a practice of eating her frustrations, but it was also true that she had seen value in doing so, a domestic virtue that had come with her generation. Honestly recalled the only truly bad times had been when he wasn’t with her. So what had changed for her? How was anything different now?
She understood boredom perfectly then. Or was it depression, this knowing what came next? She had never been a bouncy type but nothing seemed urgent to her anymore. When had it become such a labor to be cheerful? She resented the way people who should have known better seemed to take her attention for granted. Men expected her to chatter, to engage them, and when she didn’t they would grouse that she was difficult to know.
So they were not her husband, whose fault was that? Why go out if she was going to act this way? You were never alone with a woman like this. How did you vie with the flawless dead? Now even his infamies were lovable, a tribute to his virility.
Yes, they had heard of him, they could understand why she missed him. They, too, missed their dead. But did she imagine that time had stopped for her as well? Who did she think she was?
And finally they didn’t like her. They didn’t like the way she looked at them. Examining them, counting their guns? Screw her, they decided. Women like this were welcome to their privacy.
It wasn’t funny, Charlotte Boxer advised her. She needed to be more careful. She was getting a reputation.
“Really?” Claire asked. At last, she thought, a reputation of her own. It was better than a room.
But men considered her a ballbuster, Charlotte protested. Why did she have to be so difficult? What did she want? What did she expect?
For Charlotte obviously these questions were rhetorical, but for Claire Klein their objectivity felt of brilliance. A respite from the predictable? Someone capable of taking her seriously? An intelligent conversation about something worth the effort?
This was the challenge, Claire Klein realized, the struggle against fatigue to stay interested in watching television.
Had everyone always been this trite? Maybe they were. Maybe her former tolerance of people was only a polite indifference to their pint-size commotions.
She had to go somewhere, anywhere, if only not to be at home for the calls, and succumbed almost immediately to the lure of the familiar, beginning with tentative, feeler-visits to the marginal resale shops of Hawthorne and Gardena, Maywood, Whittier and El Monte, gradually working her way up to the consignment dealers and small galleries, her eyes peeled for hallmarks and monograms, trivet scars, casting marks, and residues of sand in tell-tale colors.
No bargains anywhere of course. With the whole world suddenly eBay-minded, the likelihood of stumbling across a regency tray displaced to a barrel of commercial plate was right up there with winning the Irish Sweepstakes, but authenticity in itself was not uncommon—Favrile candlesticks, Rookwood pots and vases, linen-faced ragdolls in tiny leather shoes—and once again it thrilled her to turn that eerily weightless gravity in her hands. The wool throw-rug, perhaps clotted with dust and worn away to the backing, but tightly woven of continuous yarns, richly dyed and properly knotted; the bisque doll, its surfaces crazed like a China doorknob, yet true German bisque, hand-painted, in its original costume—she felt particular achievement in these rare charged moments, a redeemer of the overlooked and underestimated, but day to day it was satisfying enough simply to exercise her judgment, to appraise an item in terms of its refinement regardless of its valuation, and she was gratified by how rapidly she recovered the formal disciplines. Prior to visiting the galleries or attending advertised auctions, Claire studied the catalogs and pertinent guidebooks and then prepared her own cheat-sheets, complete with ranges of acceptable costs, and mid-week she shopped the conservators, her days taking on a satisfying regularity. Soon a network emerged, dealers eager to accommodate her preferences, collectors trolling for sources and referrals. Even her appetite returned. How does a person forget about ice cream? Her daughters reproached her gently for the extravagance of her house-gifts: small children and Cowan pottery beneath the same roof? But her renewal restored the girls to minding their own business, and Claire felt a relief of her own to talk with them again without suspecting that they were talking about something else.
What did she need then with complications? Shop, Claire. Buy something. Show the world what you’re made of.
A lawyer no less, Herman Dreiser. Even worse than that, a lawyer’s lawyer, recently retired but latterly of counsel to Bailey & Ackerman and a frequenter of the galleries Claire favored; though perhaps, he admitted, more a student than a collector, since these days anything really good was beyond any normal collector’s reach.
“Still, we don’t need to own things in order to appreciate them, do we?” he asked, suggesting to Claire that she, too, was about to be appreciated.
Yet how can she ignore that he speaks in complete sentences? His clothing fits lightly with a comfortable looseness. On his feet he wears shoes. Much of his hair is on his head. Altogether then a qualified possibility, if not Mr. Right then at least Mr. Plausible, the silvered, thickened but presentable prince one might reasonably expect in a fable for our time, and consequently all too good to be true.
“You’re Claire Klein. I recognized you. We met—” then mentions some charity function, a dance, an installation banquet, probably one of Teddy’s win-win events. Teddy would sponsor these occasions to recruit investors. Dreiser himself might have been one of Teddy’s grateful beneficiaries.
He respected Claire, too, it seemed, “You do your homework,” he observed, but she could see how that awkward front she projected was putting him off, and at an early dinner later that afternoon he offered a gratuitous observation.
“You’re some tough cookie. Does it work for you?” Her cynicism he meant, the defensive skills she construed as her independence, and she could sense him wondering if she was worth his time, surprising her in an endearing way by revealing that he, too, needed to be cautious. Was he truly attracted to her, she thought, or merely the challenge she represented? Really, she wondered, what was there to like?
“Young women bore me,” Dreiser said.
So much for exchanging compliments.
Yet three days later Dreiser proposed another meal together, a luncheon this time, where he suggested casually over shrimp salads that she might be a victim of demonic possession.
“Although I must tell you, this is not unusual. Almost all the attractive women I meet lately are possessed by their former lovers. They’re like those women with dybbuks in Jewish fairy tales. But do you think your Teddy would have wanted this for you? Maybe you should let him alone.”
“This is what I get for talking to a lawyer.”
“Am I presuming too much?”
“I would say you listen too fast.”
“You’re right, I do. Still, I have to wonder. When we met the other day at that gallery in Westwood I got this feeling you were entertaining me while we waited for your husband to show up.”
“I’m surprised you came back.”
“It’s touching, Claire. You speak about him the way little girls talk about their fathers. I don’t care for it but I can see it. It’s something my wife might have done. The question, though, is whether he has you or you have him. Is it possible your Teddy has other things to do?”
“Speaking as his attorney?”
“Maybe as your attorney.”
“I don’t think Teddy would approve of this conversation.”
Dreiser sighed and sat back in his chair. “You sound content.”
“Why not,” she asked. “Those fairytale women really liked their dybbuks. The men couldn’t help that they were dead and as a woman you took the bad with the good.”
“Maybe you’re dead, too,” said Dreiser. “Maybe you’re too smart to live. It’s intelligent but it’s not sensible.”
“You mean there’s more?”
“There’s always more. Also there’s less.”
“I should be very angry at you,” Charlotte Boxer scolds her. “Why do I have to hear about this from strangers?”
“You mean Dreiser?”
“Certainly Dreiser, of course Dreiser. Is it true?”
“He’s a lawyer, Charlotte. He keeps asking me questions.”
“Maybe he’s trying to make conversation.”
“It’s not easy with you. He’s probably expecting you to say something.”
Yet another miracle, Claire Klein marvels, understatement from Charlotte Boxer.
“You should eat,” Dreiser suggested at dinner that evening. “Grieving is work.”
“I try to pace myself.”
“You’re right, I should keep my mouth shut, but the problem is I want your attention. May I tell you something?”
“I’m struggling to be constructive. I have to keep reminding myself we’re not in litigation.”
“Is there an offer here?”
“You could call it that. The thing is we like each other.”
“I didn’t think it was that obvious.”
“More like implicit. I figure neither of us has to be here, only you’re wondering what I see in you.”
“Do I want to know this?”
“Actually this is the question. I’m trying to be considerate.”
“I try not to argue with lawyers.”
“Did Teddy tell you that, too?”
“He still tells me that. Ask their advice or give them instructions, but avoid discussions.”
“Why? What’s he telling you about me?”
“You?” she laughed. “What’s there to talk about?”
“You hide in him, Claire. You think he’s protecting you. Don’t you know that fear is shit? It’s like worrying,” Dreiser said.
“You should sell tickets,” Claire Klein replied.
But she was stalling, a tactic she seemed to find increasingly necessary with this man. “Actually, you may be right,” she confessed as Dreiser drove her home.
His sedan was a tenderly preserved Mercedes-Benz that still smelled pleasantly of its pale leather upholstery, and she felt a throe of interruption when Dreiser wheeled the car into her driveway.
“I’d invite you in but obviously we wouldn’t be alone.”
“Would you like us to be alone?” Dreiser asked.
An excellent question really. Very lawyerly, Claire Klein thought.
“I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
“Who is?” he asked.
Dreiser had opened the windows and turned off the engine, and almost immediately the aroma of the car’s interior was displaced by a fragrance that might have been hydrangea.
“Why don’t we just sit here for a while,” he said.
“Yes, I would like that.” She smiled at him and then settled back against the door.
“Still, Claire, I must tell you, we don’t have a lot of time.”
Bill Teitelbaum studies writing at the Kitchen Table College of Continuing Education in Lincolnwood, Illinois, a small Midwestern village adjacent to the larger Midwestern village of Chicago. His work has appeared in journals such as 2 Bridges Review, Bayou, Confrontation, Iconoclast, Jewish Fiction, The MacGuffin and Rhino, and in anthologies such as Western Michigan University’s Art of the One-Act. Among his current projects is a collection of stories about the abruptly marooned called Are You Seeing Anyone?