Gert commands her parents
Some people think Gert is a bully, but she thinks they are just jealous of her. She doesn't care what other people think of her, but she finds it puzzling when people think she is demanding; she never asks anyone for anything.
Some people can't believe how separated Gert's family is -- her father won't talk to her mother, nor to his older daughter; Rory doesn't talk to his father; Julie doesn't like Dave or Gert. Sometimes Gert wonders how she happened to get stuck in such a cold and heartless group where no one talks to one another.
"Dad, hi. Are you busy?" "Rahrn." Her father always answers the phone with a grunt or a grumble, as if to lowball his contribution to the conversation. He is always prepared for the worst, so he approaches the phone in a grumpy tone.
"Come for dinner later. I'll make spaghetti." Gert knows exactly how this commanding tone will affect her father's mood. He won't like it. Sometimes Gert needs to push her father's buttons. It is rehearsal for the future, when he is very weak and she is very strong. When she is inviting him, offering something, these are the best times to practice commanding him. It confuses her father because he isn't sure how to respond, and Gert enjoys creating internal dissonance in her father. She looks forward to the day he is submissive to her and she dictates his every move.
Sometimes Gert feels that no one understands her, that no one even tries. Her father is solely interested in his stomach: eating and bitter complaints about those who annoy him. Her mother is mostly focused on Julie. Gert feels it isn't fair: because their father favors Gert, their mother spends more energy on Julie. This is why Gert is so careful to treat her children equally. It irritates Gert so see how solicitous her mother is towards Julie. It really isn't fair, Gert often thinks, and Gert's children are the ones who suffer.
Sometimes Gert can't take it anymore, and she writes an evil note to Julie to describe her feelings. The least Julie could do is to respond to Gert, but she doesn't, and she never addresses their conflicts, either. Gert's mother just cries and breaks down -- "Why can't my two daughters just get along with each other?" she cries. Now that they are adults, their mother wishes they would act more like grown-ups.
How Jenny lives now
Dave always wonders what happened to Jenny. She was once so sweet, and now she is a sweet little ghost. He can't touch her, of course, as he is no longer her husband, but he wonders if she is someone to be touched. Can she be touched, or would his hand go right through her? He has the feeling that she is transparent.
When Gert and Dave were preparing to marry, Dave often took calls from Jenny. His voice would turn soft: he would offer advice to her and sometimes go to help her. Gert believes that divorce should be divorce, and there would be no reason to go back to one's ex for anything. Gert feels Dave's attention to Jenny as a direct insult, a slap in her face, and although Dave never initiates the conversations, he always responds. Dave listens to Gert's complains, and he offers his typical silence in return. But one day after he has to leave Gert's dinner table to drive Jenny and Rory to the hospital, he becomes angry about Gert's objections. "Jenny is the mother of my son," he says, and Gert understands this to be Dave's final word on the matter. She also understands from his simple statement and firm tone that in a battle between Jenny and Gert, Jenny would always win. Gert knows how to choose her battles, and she concedes silently on this one, assuming that she can change it by becoming a mother also -- to Dave's next children, and she moves forward on the project immediately.
Once Gert and Dave are married, Gert intercepts Jenny's calls, and rather than antagonize, she handles Jenny's questions, concerns, and needs, especially regarding Rory. More than once, Gert has given money to Jenny without telling Dave about it. Somehow Gert manages to please everyone at once while keeping her husband separated from his ex-wife. Gert is especially proud of her own magnanimity and inventiveness in approaching this tricky situation, and she manages to control and subdue both Jenny and Dave, keeping them, and the entire situation, under her control.
She decides to outdo Dave in assisting Jenny: if Jenny asks Dave for $20, he will certainly give it to her, but if she asks Gert she will get $25. If she asks Dave for a ride to her doctor, he will drive her, but if she asks Gert, Jenny gets a ride and a drive-thru meal as well. In this way Gert trains Jenny to depend upon her, and though Gert is sick to her stomach at every interaction with Jenny, she continues to save her own marriage by pacifying her rival.
"Can you find out whether or not Rory passed his math? Jenny? Can you call Rory and ask him?"
"He did, Dad. He already told you."
"Can you call and see how he's doing?"
"Dad, he's doing well."
"Can you call him, Jenny?" Jenny pulls herself up to the pillows to look at the phone. The phone for Jenny is a vehicle for transporting bad news. She has turned off the sound so that it never startles her, but still it sits next to her bed, ready at any moment to transport her to an even sadder place than where she already resides.
When Gert recognizes Jenny's number, she reacts as always: first a feeling of disgust and nausea, a desire to vomit, then a clenching of her nerves and a deliberate effort to pull herself together -- a conscious lowering of her voice to belie her anger and annoyance. She answers the phone in her sweetest voice: "Hello Jenny, how are you? How is your father? I thought you forgot all about me, as I hadn't heard from you for so long!" When Jenny asks about her son, Gert lies to avoid further conversation: "He's doing very well in math, Jenny. He always does." In truth Gert knows it doesn't matter: Rory is as helpless and as hopeless as his mother, and Gert takes a secret and perverse pleasure in this. She knows that her own children will never be like this, and she knows they will not be lazy, not ever, because she does not tolerate any laziness in her own children.
When Jenny feels well, she helps her father with his bookkeeping. She's an adequate bookkeeper, able to manage well enough. Her father could certainly do the work himself, but he prefers to bring the stack of bills and the ledger to Jenny in her small bed, the same small bed she has always used, except for the brief time she lived with her husband. He feels he can keep Jenny's mind sharp and focused; he can give her the feeling that she is able to work and earn a living for herself if she should ever choose to do so.
He worries what will happen to Jenny after he passes on. He imagines her alone in the rambling old farmhouse, here in her bed, with the roof springing leaks, the kitchen burners left accidentally on, the doors inadvertently unlocked. What horrors could come to Jenny in his absence! He worries, and he resolves again to leave his bills paid, especially the mortgage, when he dies.
Sometimes he wakes with a jump, disoriented by a nightmare. Always it is Jenny he is dreaming of. In these dreams, he is running, but too slowly, to save her. Or he is holding the bumper of her car as it teeters on the edge of a tall cliff. His dreams are vivid, and they cause him to shout in the night. They are based in past and future, the memories of others, and they are visions of his own helplessness.
How they met and subsequent regrets
Once Ric convinced Gert to ditch her afternoon classes for a concert in the Twin Cities. They snuck into the parking lot after phys ed, running in furtive fits and starts as if escaping a crime scene in an episode of Starsky and Hutch or Dukes of Hazzard. Gert, exhilarated, thought of jumping into the car through the open window. The missing window, broken gas gauge, dusty dash -- all these were standard features of cars in the student parking lot. Kids were meant to live through the conditions of poverty in their teen years, to experience a gentle sort of poverty -- just enough that they would study and work hard as adults. Adults in this small town believe in character building, and any apostate who would buy a nice car for a teenaged child risks censure. Not only that: a teenager with a nice car is promptly marked for a failed adulthood.
When Dave was a young man, he was known as a loner. He drank beer with some of the older guys in the neighborhood -- fathers, grandfathers, other loners -- they invited him into their garages for beer and football games. Dave rarely spoke, but he was welcome. They considered him a good guy: quiet and hard-working.
On the day he met Gert, the Vikes were in the play-offs. Dave's mother had insisted that he go and watch the game. Dave was still raw from losing Jenny, and Rory was just a toddler.
Dave went with one of the old guys to the grocery. Dave didn't say a word, but old Joe wouldn't stop talking to Gert, who was caught with them in a long grocery line. Why Joe invited Gert to the party, and why Gert accepted, Dave would never know, but there she was, throwing back cold beers with the guys, and it was Dave who finally had to take her home.
Gert has always wondered ... it was such a coincidence, how she met Dave. Why did he volunteer to take her home? Just because he saw that she needed a ride? Or because he was attracted to her? Was he just being a nice guy, or did he see an opportunity, a chance to get to know someone wonderful?
Sometimes Gert wonders what Dave would do without her. Would he go back to Jenny? Would he drift off alone into the woods? Would he go home and live with his mother? She doesn't know, but it worries her. The worst would be his going back to Jenny, but she can't imagine that, really. Jenny: always lying around in her bed, in her father's house. Why would Dave want to go off with a woman like that, a woman with no ambition, no creativity?
Before Clay was born, there was a time that Dave reconsidered his situation and realized that his life insufferable. Dave wanted his life to be simple. He began to imagine another life -- deep in the forest -- where wildlife had sovereignty over the land, where he could be the only human for many miles around.
Dave treads lightly on the land, respects the other creatures, listens to their needs. In all his forty-three years, Dave has never met another person who knows how to exist as a man alone, at one with the natural world. The women of his house, his wife and daughter, clamor for attention, repelling all natural forces, bending the will of nature around them rather than allowing it to be at peace with itself.
How could he explain his departure to Gert in a way she could understand? How could he make his leaving peaceful? He would leave all of it behind him and feel no compulsion to see them again, but how could he leave without an uproar? The leaving seems impossible, while the being gone seems the only way. Leaving. Being gone. Leaving. Being gone. Would he miss them? He knows he would not. Would they pursue him? He knows they would, those women especially, with a doggedness that would exhaust them all.
They would pursue him to his death and beyond. Oh why this insistence on fathers and their relevance in the lives of their daughters? Fathers must be just so, and they must provide exactly so much to their daughters. A father should treat his daughter as a princess. And if he can't do it, he's a failure.
Gert in particular has very fixed ideas on exactly what she and Rose deserve and must have from Dave. This amount is exacted from him in a meticulous form of accounting of which only Gert knows the rules.
The least he can do.
It seems to Dave as if he is always doing this -- the least he can do, as Gert defines it. Gert always has a bottom line, and she always tells Dave what it is, with this preface: "The least you can do is ..." In this way Gert defines the world and its reasonable expectations of all people. Gert always knows what reasonable people should do -- at the very least.
How did Gert come to find the rules about the least each person can do? How does it happen that she knows these rules better than anyone else? Dave often wonders how Gert became so clear and fixed on these expectations while the rest of the world flounders. Perhaps Gert could bring peace to the world with her unique knowledge about the least people can do.
Dave feels himself pushing against iron bars, as he has since meeting Gert. He needed her then, and perhaps he needs her still now, but he doesn't desire her, and he often doesn't like her. Her absence, even for an hour, is a relief to him, and yet their marriage has habits and customs that are comfortable, and the end of the marriage would bring a certain degree of chaos and catastrophe that Dave is unable to confront.
He considers the end. If only the end of his marriage could mean the end of daily human contact. But he already knows there is no end to Gert. Never. She won't fade away in a blush of common sense, and she won't go off to find someone else. Oh how she has trapped him in her ingenious design. He may never escape, but be suffocated, his blood slowly drained away.
Gert will always be there, defining the rules of his existence, carving him up into equal portions: financial provider, emotional provider, spectator of events she deems important: recitals, games, and ceremonies. He never asked for these events in his life. His first child never demanded these things. His first child knew nothing of violins and churches, these things that Gert demands.
Gert is not accustomed to making confessions; in fact, she intends to live her entire life without regrets; if she does everything right in the first place, she has nothing to confess. At work, if she scoops a sale, she always apologizes to the co-worker who lost out: business is business, she includes in her apology. She wants a clear conscience, and this is why she always apologizes for anything that may have offended another. She prefers this sort of living, without complications.
But this is Dave, and she has done him wrong. She has done something behind his back, and the least she can do now is to tell him. She doesn't want it to escalate and come back to haunt her. She has required herself to confess her sin to Dave, and she knows that she must comply with her own requirement. She has decided, and Gert's decision is always final. Gert takes a deep breath, and again.
She begins at the beginning. She reminds Dave of Ric. "Do you remember Ric?" She asks Dave.
"No," Dave says, he doesn't remember anyone named Ric. "Someone at work?" He ventures. He wants to seem interested.
"Not at work, Dave, no. My boyfriend in high school. You don't remember? Ric. He was in a rock band ... He had long hair. It was silly. I was silly. You would have hated Ric. Dad always hated him, called him a hoodlum ... That hoodlum, he would say. Are you going with that hoodlum? ...
"Dave, remember that auction sale last week? Remember, Dave? I wanted you to go with me, but you didn't feel like it. Remember? Anyway, Ric was there. He was there for a guitar that was advertised, but he doesn't know anything about auctions. Not like you, Dave. Not like us. He really didn't know what to do at the auction. I had to help him. He didn't even know how to place a bid. Anyway, he bought the guitar and then he wanted to thank me for my help. Dave, are you listening? He just wanted to thank me, so I said okay. I went with him. We went to the Dairy Queen, and that's it. We had ice cream together; we talked about high school; we talked about you and his wife, Susan. It was a nice talk, but that's all, Dave. Really, that's all we did. And then I left. I left before he could finish his ice cream. I was anxious to get back to you and the kids."
At first Dave had been listening to Gert. He thought she would tell him something interesting about the guy at work, Dick, who is always trying to scoop the sales of others. Gert often complains of him. He thought maybe Dick had pushed too far and Gert had confronted him. But that's Dick, not Ric. He realizes this as soon as Gert mentions high school.
Once Dave knows that she is reminiscing about high school and people he has never met, he loses interest and drifts, thinking of Jenny in her father's old farmhouse. He is wondering what will happen after Jenny's father dies and Jenny is alone in that big house. Jenny won't know what to do ... she could burn the house down so easily. He wonders if he can save Jenny if the house starts burning. Could he know it telepathically? Run to the scene in time? Morbidly, then, he wonders if a fire would somehow wake Jenny from deep inside her, bring meaning back to her life. Perhaps he should get a police scanner.
He is wondering again if he could have saved her, back then, before he confessed all his troubles to his mother and shifted fate, set his mother's wheels in motion. He is wondering now if he should have stayed silent, as he does now, if his constant presence could have saved her.
When Gert finishes her confession, she waits to hear Dave's response. Still at peace, still prepared for anything, she waits. But Dave had fallen asleep several minutes earlier with these same persistent thoughts: He had promised to love her through the worst of times, and he had failed. What if he had waited just a little longer? Why did he listen to his mother?
"Dave?" Gert whispers now, her voice trembling, until she hears him softly snoring. There will be no struggle for her heart: no resolution, no departure, nor any sort of triumph. Tomorrow will be the same as always, and tomorrow, and tomorrow again.