"I'm sorry," said Paula, "who's this again? Your boss's niece?"
"Never mind," I groaned, "you're not listening."
"Yes I am, I am, Rick, you said she was in the office for --"
I took another bite of my chicken sandwich and chewed it deliberately. Paula looked at me expectantly, apologetically, annoyed, and then picked again at her Caesar salad. We were in Doobie's Famous Deli, our favorite downtown lunch place, midway between our two offices, where we'd met about twice a month since I left Morgenthau & Schmick, the media design firm where she still worked. For the past couple of years I've been in charge of internal communications for a cable-TV company, making twice as much money for doing nothing of significance.
"I've known you long enough," I said at last, "to tell when your mind is elsewhere. You had the same look you used to get in weekly project meetings. Drifty-eyed, misty."
"That bad?" she offered with a smirk. "Please, go on with your story."
Even on this blustery January day Paula managed a professional appearance, slim and trim in her classic skirt and tailored blouse. She was attractive but never ostentatious, and though a casual observer wouldn't think her beautiful (face too narrow, eyes rather close together, chest of the less endowed sort), when you sat across from her at meetings for six years and had a chance to watch the high light from a sixteenth-floor window play on her cheekbones and sprinkle glints in the glossy black Italian shoulder-length hair, you began to appreciate the charm. You also became aware of subtle signs of discontent.
"My story," I shrugged, "isn't worth the bother. What happens in cable companies should stay in cable companies. What's more important is, how come you're so distracted today -- or worried, is it? Mike Morgenthau on the rampage again?"
"No, he's been great."
"Mike is never great. Tolerable, maybe. Halfway rational."
"Yes, he's been at least 45 percent rational for weeks now."
"It must be a new record for Mikey."
Paula smiled and stabbed at her salad again, and I watched with affection. I've always thought we'd make a great couple if she weren't married with three teenage kids and I weren't basically gay. Such minor details, along with archaic social customs (like the one concerning marital fidelity), have kept us from dating. However, our weird social system has granted me the gay man's privileged status of confidant(e), which I enjoy and perhaps abuse with regularity. Other than her hairdresser, and maybe her husband, I bet I was the first to know when the glossy black had to be supplemented with artifice. I felt for her then. Also when she suspected her husband's consulting work with the Treasury Dept. brought him into too-frequent contact with a young female staffer. I've come to count on her for juicy tales now and then, or just for a spark in my existence, because life at the cable company ... well, like they say, there's hundreds of channels and not a thing worth watching. Sometimes I've flattered myself that she relies on me to the same degree.
Now I prodded her: "If it's not crazy Mikey, is it Susie? You know me, babe, I won't pry but I'm always glad to lend a sympathetic large ear."
My ears indeed are big, and she cracked a small grin at the small joke, though she must have heard it a dozen times before. Originality is not one of my strong points, but kindness is one of hers.
"It's, actually," she said, pausing for a sip of water, "not work-related. An old friend, he's in trouble, I think, and I don't quite know what to -- "
"Boyfriend?" I interjected too eagerly.
A faint flush spread in diagonal lines under her cheekbones, like muted strokes of makeup. "No, uh-uh, only a friend upstate. Someone we knew when Ken was getting his doctorate at the New Bergen campus and I was freelancing. A townie, you might say; he grew up in a village near there."
"Tell, tell," I grinned.
"Well, I don't know. Um ... That year we rented a cottage out in the boondocks to save money, and Merle and Betsy, his wife, lived down the road. Our sons were born at the same time and became playmates. We've loosely kept in touch -- Christmas cards, that sort of thing. A few times we've gone up that way on skiing vacations and stopped in."
"Merle and Betsy, sounds like a true country couple."
"Betsy was from New Bergen itself, a quiet girl, kind of mousy. Kept to herself, but friendly when you got to know her. Merle, he was something else. He was like, it's hard to explain, but there must be people of that sort in small towns everywhere. A kind that doesn't fit. He was interested in cooking, gardening, antiques, not guns or cars or football. Sensitive. Arty in a small-town way -- he was the one who fixed up their lace curtains, and he knew where to buy nice furniture at affordable prices."
"I think small towns breed deviants on purpose, out of general boredom."
"I remember how he brought out his great-grandmother's 'best silver' for special occasions. He was very proud of the armoire he inherited from her. And he wore dressy flowered shirts when everyone else was in cotton tees."
"So Betsy went around in tank tops, rebuilt tractor engines and chopped wood."
"No, no. She was very plain and practical and glad to leave aesthetic decisions to Merle. We found them an interesting pair. And Merle clearly liked having 'intellectual' friends, if an economist and a designer count for that. He'd started at the university but never graduated, took some clerical job with the town government. He had plans for going back to school, opening his own antiques shop, moving to Manhattan, always a new scheme. And everything with him was a drama; if he'd had a tiny argument at work, he'd tell it like a battle of the titans. He'd act it out for us."
"I can see the gestures. A closeted country drama queen. And I can imagine those lace curtains -- yuck."
"Don't be wicked, Rick, it's more complicated than -- "
"Sorry," I blurted, feeling a tweak in my chest. After a moment I prompted, "And you said, he's in trouble, or they both are?"
Her gaze wandered out the window, where dim pedestrians hunched against the wind. Then she looked at her salad again, and at me, and blinked a couple of times as if the restaurant's light bothered her eyes. I gestured to encourage her.
"Well ... they got divorced when Denny, their son, was in junior high. This was long after we moved away. We never heard Betsy's view of what happened; Merle just said there was nothing left so why pretend. I suspected he had male friends. Not long after, Betsy died -- a sudden, awful breast cancer. She kept quiet about it, no fuss, calling no attention to herself. We didn't even know she was sick until a few weeks before the end."
"That's sad. I've known a couple people like that, or thought I knew them."
"And Denny, he graduated high school last summer, at 16, and drifted off, lost contact with his dad, who had put such hopes on him. See, when Denny was little they were convinced, or Merle was convinced, he was a genius, so they enrolled him in gifted classes, pressured the school to skip him ahead a grade. We thought Merle's hopes for escaping the small town had gotten transferred to his son. But being with older kids, what Denny learned most about was pot and sex."
"Time-honored lessons. Also the perfect way to punish your parents."
"Maybe that's what it was."
"So Merle's trouble now is ... loneliness? regret? despair?"
"Mmhhh, like I said, it's more complicated. And I found out something that maybe is about him, or maybe not, and either way it's disturbing."
"This is getting interesting. I'm glad we dropped my niece-of-cable-executive story."
"I'd like to hear that another day. With you telling it, it's bound to be -- uh-oh, is it quarter after one? I've got a 1:30 conference call, Rick, I have to run, did she give us separate checks? Yes, so I'll -- "
"Wait, you've left a quarter of your salad. And I want to know about this Merle. Is he cute? Should I dash up and rescue him from the country curtains?"
"Cute? Not anymore. Used to have curly red hair but it's receding fast, and he's gotten chubby over the years. Not your type, Ricky, nothing at all like HWNS -- "
"Sorry! I thought we could use the initials? ... Anyway, he wouldn't be good for you, and those fries aren't either, especially the way you've murdered them with ketchup. Promise me you're not having a cigarette after lunch."
I stood up to hug her. "I've quit for good," I lied, and as she hastened to the cash register I called after her, "Phone me soon."
* * *
It was only a week before she got in touch by e-mail, and we met at Doobie's early, before the luncheon rush. Sensing from her message that she needed the large sympathetic ear, I wondered if this had to do with The Saga of Merle, as I'd dubbed her truncated story.
Though I grabbed an isolated table in the back corner where she could feel free to unload the spicier tidbits, she was uncharacteristically taciturn when she arrived, creating an awkwardness between us. We fumbled with the menus, rearranged the water glasses, unfolded our napkins. She ordered a spinach salad. "Disgustingly healthy, as ever," I muttered, putting in my own request for a bacon and gruyère omelet.
"So what's new?" I queried.
Eyelids at half-mast, she gave a half-shrug. She was digging the fingernails of her left hand into the table top, grinding them back and forth as if trying to cut a groove in the imitation wood grain.
"Mike still 45 percent sane?"
"That may be an exaggeration. But he's okay, nothing beyond the usual."
"Are you still worried about your friend ... Merle?" (I almost said "your friend the country drama queen," but thought better of it.)
"Oh, did I -- how much did I tell you?"
"Background," I said, "nothing about the current problem," but she was talking over me:
"The thing is, I don't know if, it's really so personal, I may be stepping out of bounds but I" -- digging in her purse, she pulled out some folded sheets of paper -- "can't decide what, you know, or should I even, was I meant to -- "
I extended my hand for the papers, but she clutched them against her chest.
"Come on," I said, "you can share anything with old Ricky."
"I may be making this up," she murmured. "Part of it. A couple weeks ago I got an e-mail from a strange address, 'Friend1991' at a domain I didn't recognize. I figured it was spam, but 1991's when my son was born, which seemed odd, so I peeked at the message. All it said was, 'Being an old friend, you may want to know,' and there was a link to a website. I didn't click the link -- I know better than that -- but it looked like one of the regular blog sites, so I pasted the address into my browser just for a glance. And what came up was the strangest thing I've ever read."
"I hate blogs," I grumped. "Once-a-day jottings from people who have ideas once a month."
She began to hand the papers to me, hesitated, and I snatched them from her. She leaned forward and bit her lip as I started to read. The two sheets were a printout from a blog titled "Herself, My Darling Dumbo." The blogger's screen name was SoTender.
Tonight we conducted a scientific experiment to determine the full extent of impairment. When I served a supper of juicy roast beef with garlic mashed potatoes and peas with pearl onions -- one of my most delectable creations -- Herself received a small portion of each, and with the plate hidden I sprinkled on a heavy dose of fresh cayenne pepper. Though her nose hinted a warning -- she never could tolerate hot foods -- I called out cheerily from the other end of the table, "Dig in, darling!" and she dutifully took a large forkful of the tender beef. She trusts me so! After she chewed and smiled glowingly for a short time, her mouth fell straight and her cheeks grew red. I pretended not to notice as her eyes bugged out and she gulped from her water glass. Herself stared at the nasty plate; I could see her trying to comprehend its connection to the burning on her tongue. She stared at me, too, for enlightenment, but I continued eating to demonstrate how yummy was our repast. In three minutes she'd forgotten the incident enough to try the roast beef again. This time the expression on her face was not to be believed. So dismayed, so comical! "You're quite thirsty tonight," I remarked when she emptied her water glass, and I took it to the kitchen for refill. By the time I returned, she'd forgotten again and was tasting the peas, which must have been hotter than the beef because her forehead dripped sweat and her hands shook so much that when she grabbed the water glass from me she spilled it down her blouse.
I left her wet, as she deserved. She pushed the plate away and choked out, "I can't eat! I can't eat this!"
"Oh," I said, "Herself's not hungry? What a shame. Her knows her can't have dessert if her doesn't finish din-din."
When I consumed a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream in front of her, she whined "I want some!" and I was forced to explain the rules again. She became confused. I asked if she could remember the name for what I was eating, which she couldn't. "Pie," I said, "pie, Dumbo, and you can't have any unless you eat your supper!" She went into one of her sulks like a three-year-old.
Half an hour later, as we watched TV in the living room, she asked, "When's supper?" "Honey," I told her, "you ate such an enormous meal, you can't possibly be hungry!"
"I did?" she wondered, oh-so-innocent.
"Yes, and you said it was marvelous. You had two giant helpings of dessert!"
That satisfied her, and our experiment concluded a glorious success! We have proved that her brain is totally totally fried. Next month, for an anniversary celebration, we may try another little experiment.
When I looked up, Paula was taking water in tiny quick gulps as if her own tongue burned with pepper. "This is a public post?" I said. "An old woman with Alzheimer's being tortured? Jesus. Whoever's doing this should be arrested!"
"Not Alzheimer's, I don't think," said Paula, her lips tight, putting out her hand to take the papers back. She was interrupted by the waitress with our food, but once the plates were settled in front of us she reached over again, demanding. After grabbing the sheets back she quickly refolded them and returned them to her purse.
I watched her curiously and then turned my attention to the heavenly aromas rising from my omelet. "So," I said around a gooey mouthful, "why do you suppose someone alerted you to this?"
She hadn't raised her fork. I pointed at her salad to remind her. Automatically she picked up the utensil and moved it slowly back and forth in the air as she said, "Did I tell you about Merle's second marriage?"
"Merle? You said his wife died of cancer, after divorcing him, or him her."
"Right. And some time after that, he met this woman he said was the love of his life. To hear him tell it, he fell head over heels for her. Arlene was widowed, somewhat older, mid-forties maybe, living near the village where he grew up, and apparently wealthy because she owned a historic country mansion built by a local banking magnate. Part of this we got from his note announcing their marriage, a private affair at a justice of the peace. The rest we gathered when we visited last year."
"Mmm-hmm. Good catch for him, it sounds like. Why the rich widow wanted a closeted gay man, that's another matter ... Don't give me that look, it's a legitimate question, and please, Paula, if you're going to haul that much chlorophyll to our table, at least stir it around."
She jerked as though the salad had materialized out of thin air. Discovering the fork in her hand, she jabbed a spinach leaf and chewed thoughtfully.
After a while I said, "But I take it, this has not been happily ever after. Merle and what's-her-name, the widow."
"Arlene. She must've been very nice. But last spring, with no warning, she had a major stroke. She was in the hospital for weeks, and she came out physically okay but with serious brain damage -- lost cognitive function, no short-term memory. Ken and I were up that way last fall, without the kids, and we met her for the first time. She asked how we knew Merle, and I told her, and five minutes later she asked again. She smiled and said polite things and hadn't a clue who we were. And she was completely dependent on him. When he was out of the room for two minutes, she asked where he'd gone."
"Sheesh. This guy is bad karma for wives."
"Merle was extremely bitter. He wanted to sue the hospital but couldn't find a lawyer who thought the case had a chance. He had to quit his job to take care of her full-time. He was miserable, he felt the woman he loved was gone, his life was gone, and the night we saw them he was teasing her mercilessly, calling her 'Dumbo' and 'My Sweet Idiot,' and she understood he was being mean but didn't quite get how or why."
"Holy shit. I may be slow on the uptake, but I'm seeing it now. You think Merle is the crazy blogger."
"Maybe. I don't know. Yes."
"Does this SoTender list an e-mail or other contact information?"
"I don't believe so, no."
"But you think, I'm guessing, that the mysterious e-mail from 'Friend' was from him. Or ... ?"
"I suppose. Maybe."
Having expressed herself so definitively, Paula had a sudden burst of hunger and attacked her spinach.
"It fits," I pondered. "Drama queen puts his agony, and his revenge, out there for the whole world to see. That's our age, isn't it, the once-private gone super-public. Whatever you got, flaunt it. What else has he written on the blog?"
"This is the only post so far. It was there ten days ago and nothing since."
"One thing I don't get is, if she's so rich and he can't stand being a caregiver, why not put her in a top-notch nursing home?"
"He said he'd never do that to her. It happened to his mother and he never forgave his father for it."
I sighed. "So what's the world saying back to him, on his malicious little site? He's not arrested yet?"
"No, I mean, I assume not. Aren't you exaggerating, because all he talked about was one meal, adding pepper -- "
"That's torture in my book, especially if she can't comprehend it. Imagine, if you've got no memory, your world is in the minute, the minutes are all you've got, and if someone's poisoning them with pepper -- "
"You don't know him! I'm sure he's not poisoning her. If you're counting minutes, then in 90, 95 percent of her minutes, maybe more, I'm sure she gets the very best of care."
"You think so? From a drama queen?"
"You keep using that term -- "
Again I felt the tweak in my chest that had bothered me the first time we discussed this subject. It hurt, and I rubbed a thumb against my sternum. "Okay, so what are other people saying? Are there comments on the blog?"
"You know, from other people."
"I haven't seen any."
"Is the site set up to allow comments?"
"How would I know?"
"Jesus, Paula, you've worked on blog pages, you're not focusing. Let me see that printout again."
"No, you're unsympathetic."
"I am very sympathetic to you, having to deal with your connection to this nut case. I saw when you came in, your cheeks are hollow, you're losing weight, which unlike me you can't afford to do. And clearly you were hoping I'd have some advice for you, at least help you think it through."
"Was I?" she said with a little sneer over her fork.
I took a deep breath. "Look, I'm not arguing. I admit I don't know this guy like you do, if it's really the same person, and it's a fucking sad case, I see that. I mean, I'm reading into it, this was a man who valued beauty, human relationships, the finer things of life, and his existence has turned to shit, which isn't uncommon in the global sense but for a type like him ... "
"You keep seeing him as a type."
"Tell me, what've you done? Since you learned about this."
Having managed in a burst to demolish her salad, she drank half a glass of water in one draft. She wiped perspiration from her forehead. "I," she said, "I answered the e mail from the Friend1991 address. I wrote something like, 'Merle, is this you? Your blog is very troubling. Do you need someone to talk with? Have you sought professional help?' What a deadly phrase, 'professional help,' but I believe I wrote it."
"My message bounced back. Undeliverable. Maybe he closed the account."
"I also wrote to an old e-mail address I had for him, something like, 'Hi, Merle, did you send me an e-mail by another account? I answered you but it bounced back. Call me. Love, Paula.' That one didn't bounce, but there's been no reply."
"Stop saying that. I don't know what else to do, because it feels too private, like I'm -- "
"If he sent you that message, isn't it a cry for help? Isn't the blog itself a cry for help?"
"So if it is, then what? What do I do?"
"Well, for starters, there's that newfangled instrument you mentioned to him."
"Newfan -- "
"The telephone. And if worse comes to worst, there's also something else I heard about recently, the postal service. Evidently there's a thing called a 'letter' you can send through the 'mail.' Not to mention that, if you think things are bad up there, you could drive to the house and stage an intervention. I'll go with you. We'll set that queen down and tell him the world sobs for his woes but he better get straight and treat the old gal right or we'll pound his head into his ass."
Tight-jawed, Paula stared at me until I became nervous enough to wipe imaginary egg off my lip. "You're cruel," she finally said. Stains of dark pink underlined her cheekbones.
"I'm cruel??? Have I peppered your food? ... Okay, I confess, dear, I've been sneaking a laxative onto your spinach. Wait'll you get back to the office."
"I can't listen to this anymore." She scraped her chair back. "I'll get my check from the waitress."
"What! I'm just being sensible!" I countered. But she was gone.
Continued next week ...