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His brief surge in attention to files had brought Mason reasonably current in his law practice. He undertook the luxury of returning calls from messages that had been left on his answering machine over the past few weeks. When he had reduced the list down to the last two he hesitated. The first of them was an attorney representing the power company. Mason’s client had knocked down a pole with his car and they had sued for about $500 compensatory damages. Mason had gotten a couple continuances and then had gotten the power company to delay requesting a new trial date so he could attempt to get his client to agree to a reasonable settlement. That had been months ago. He had handled the case in such a dilatory manner that he feared that the power company attorney might want to tell him he was considering a complaint to the bar association.
“Would your client settle for $150?” the power company attorney asked in his phone message. “If he’ll pay us that within the next ten days, we’ll dismiss our complaint. This case isn’t going anywhere and we want to get it finished.”
Law by neglect. Mason was delighted. He knew his client would be also. Mason had previously told the client that he might be able to get them down to $300, but he had not expected $150.
The remaining call was from Mrs. Borstikyan, former wife of Officer Raymond Borst, the Armenian policeman whom Mason thought could easily abandon what little restraint he might possess and shoot both his ex-wife and Mason. Mason wondered if he’d have enough time to get his own gun out while the enraged Officer Borst was kicking in his office door. Of course, nothing damaging had happened so far. And Mrs. B paid his modest fees promptly.
He dialed her number.
“He’s only sent me half for the last two months,” she told him, referring to her monthly child support allotments.
“Let’s try a letter first. I’ll get one out this week. If it works, it’s a lot cheaper for you than going into a hearing.”
She was reluctant. “If he’s short on the next payment, I want a hearing. That’s all he understands.”
Mason suspected she was right, but he wouldn’t want Officer Borst to accuse him of not giving fair warning. The Law of the West.
Gail wanted him to go shopping with her for a new dress. He hated stores. He went into them only on specific missions. Even when he bought groceries he usually prepared a list, went directly to the listed items, no browsing, and was in and out of the store before the motor of his car had started to cool. But Gail had insisted that they should be doing more things together and that it would be important to her to know that a dress she bought would be pleasing to him. He had almost told her that anything would be fine, but he realized that to say that would be to suggest that her choices did not matter. And that kind of remark would have come from a part of him he was trying to change. Having reconsidered, he agreed to take her to a shopping center. Just before he left the house to pick up Gail, his mother called.
“Oh, you’re home, huh?”
“So often when I call it just rings and rings. Or I get your friend, the one who’s staying there. What’s his name?” Mason thought he had probably repeated George’s name in nearly every phone call with her.
“His name’s George. I think I’ve mentioned it before.”
“George. That’s right. Does he pay you any rent? He should, you know. Of course, when I call your office I usually get your machine. Is that your own machine or does the school provide that?” He knew that she thought the world would take advantage of him, due to what she believed was his general weakness in avoiding bad situations. For her, “bad” was a very broad term.
“That’s my own machine.”
“Have you asked them about getting you one? Maybe they’d do it if you asked. It must be expensive.”
“One of my clients gave it to me.”
“What are you doing?” She spoke in her usual casual tone, but to Mason it represented her constant compulsion to advise and judge. She had often told him that she had “learned the hard way,” an indirect criticism of him.
“You mean right now?”
“Are you busy with something? Am I interrupting?”
“I was just going out to do some shopping.”
“When am I gonna see you?”
Conversations with her were nearly always the same. She had been repeating the same phrases, the same questions, for years because she knew them well and sometimes they worked. As she watched him grow out of childhood, she had developed and perfected them through repetition. His responses had never made any difference. She had him if he resisted; she had him if he complied. His common response had become withdrawal. He became an automaton when he talked with her. He answered obediently but he volunteered nothing.
“You still seeing that girl? What’s her name?”
“You mean Gail?”
“Gail. That’s right. When am I gonna get to meet her?”
“I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about that.”
She had never been particularly interested in any of his women, suggesting that he did not know how to pick a mate. She apparently had decided that he changed girlfriends so frequently she would be wasting time trying to learn about any one of them. He wondered if she saw them as competing with her. There was a brief pause while she shifted to another topic.
“You’re not working too hard, are you? You know you need to get a good balance of everything, food, exercise, social. That’s why I don’t ever get sick.” She typically reported a cold or arthritis or some kind of self-diagnosed heart dysfunction at least once every month or two, which was not unusual for her age, but he resented her attempts to deny it. He tried to believe that it was only a self-preservation mechanism, that she was only trying to convince herself and was not consciously trying to manipulate him, but he couldn’t quite accept that premise. He thought she was saying that even in matters of his own health he was inadequate and she would always know a better means of caring for him than he did.
It occurred to him that he was being overly sensitive, that she was entitled to a mother’s concerns. If another woman had said the same things to him he supposed he would not have reacted the same way. He was ashamed of his attitude toward her. And at the same time he resented her for making him feel that way. She presented him with a cascade of negative feelings.
“It snowed up here a little bit last week. It didn’t stick though. Did you get any there?”
“Somebody told me that it snowed a little, but I didn’t see it.”
“I think we’re in for a cold winter.” She said that every year. He didn’t respond. He had no interest in the weather. It would be what it would be. After a moment of silence she said, “Well I know you’re busy, so I’ll let you go.” Another pause to allow him to respond. He remained silent. “Call me once in a while, won’t you?”
“Oh sure. And you take care of yourself.”
“OK. Goodbye, dear.”
He said “Goodbye” and hung up. He stared at the phone and imagined that his appearance was like that of a spy he had seen pictured in the newspaper a few days earlier. He was in handcuffs, was being led somewhere unresistingly, and had an expression on his face that was a curious combination of triumph and self-loathing.
Mason put on his coat and drove to Gail’s condominium, still distracted by his mother’s call and without being fully conscious of the motions his body was going through.
As he and Gail rode together to the shopping center, she talked dreamily of what kind of dress she might buy and why she needed it. In the huge parking lot they had to leave the car about a quarter mile away from the nearest store. By the time they had gotten into the warm mall, Mason had been cheered considerably by Gail’s own ebullient attitude. He bought them both ice cream cones and they sat on a bench in the mall to eat them and watch the other shoppers walk by.
“Ohhh, isn’t he cute?” Gail said, looking at a baby parked in a stroller while the mother examined items in a store window. The baby gazed around randomly with the curious inattention of a lost dog.
“How do you know it’s a ‘he’?”
“Because he’s in blue, Mason. Everybody knows that.”
Mason attended to his ice cream cone, catching the drips with his tongue, wondering if he should go to the restroom when he finished the cone or wait until later.
“How old do you think she is?”
“I thought you said it was a boy.”
“No, no. I mean the mother. How old do you think?”
Seeing where this conversation might be headed, Mason purposely guessed high. “About thirty, I suppose.”
“Thirty? I bet she’s about twenty-two. She’s younger than me and she’s got that beautiful baby.”
The woman wheeled away down the mall, looking to Mason as though she would rather not be pushing an infant in something that to him resembled a modified grocery cart.
“I want to have a baby, Mason.”
“That’s a very motherly thought.”
“Don’t you think it would be wonderful? They’re so cute. And they smile and laugh and hold onto your finger with their little fists. They make you feel like you’re doing what you were put on earth to do. Don’t you think so?”
“Not really.” He thought maybe she’d been joking, but he wasn’t sure. He laughed slightly to avoid sounding excessively negative. He had already had two babies, or at least he had given them to Jane. His babies were now almost adults who had begun to show little interest in him except as a source of money. Considering his own age, Mason had begun to feel that he had already passed the halfway mark in his life. Now Gail was suggesting a denial of what he had assumed would become a kind of parole from life’s duties and agonies. In his view, his time on Earth had begun trending downward, too late for new demands.
“I know they can be a lot of trouble,” she said. “I’m not unrealistic. I hope you believe that. But I think the rewards outweigh the trouble. And besides, I think it’s sort of what a relationship between a man and a woman should be about. It gives it some purpose.”
“Why would you say that?” he asked, having learned from his mother how to play the martyr when it was to his advantage. “Don’t you think we have a good relationship? It’s not just about making babies. It’s about fulfilling each other.” He wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but it sounded good to him. “We have fun together. We go places. We have good sex.”
“Mason!” She looked around to see if anyone had heard. Then she giggled. She pulled him by the arm to get him up from the bench. “Come on. Let’s go look for that dress.”
They went into several stores and he stood quietly with his hands clasped awkwardly behind him while she prowled through the racks of dresses. Sometimes she pulled one out and held it out in front of her. What was she looking for? She would ask him “What do you think of this?” and he would say that it looked fine. In fact, they all looked about the same to him when there was no one inside them.
After an hour of such shopping, in which she bought nothing but a scarf that she had carefully selected from a table heaped with others that all looked the same to Mason, they returned to a shop she had been in earlier. She tried on a dress that she had previously admired.
In front of the three-way mirrors she turned this way and that, running her hands along her hips and rear, checking something on the front of the dress, the workmanship maybe. “What do you think?” she asked him. It had seemed like a long arduous process leading to a choice of something that would have only rare and nearly meaningless impact on her daily life.
But he said, “You look beautiful.”
“You don’t think it’s too glamorous?”
He wasn’t sure what she meant by that. “I don’t suppose you’d want to wear it when you were selling shock absorbers to a car dealer in Acton. But it’d be dynamite at a party or the next time we go out to dinner.”
“Tonight maybe? Maurice’s? To celebrate my new dress.” Maurice’s was an expensive French restaurant.
“That sounds great. And I’ve got a new movie tape that we could watch on the TV afterwards.”
She changed out of the dress and gave it to the sales clerk along with her bank credit card. Mason wondered if he ought to offer to pay for it and decided not.
“I’ll bet they’d let you use their phone to make a reservation at Maurice’s,” Gail suggested.
“I can call when I get home,” Mason countered.
“You’d better do it now. You’ll forget or something, and then we won’t be able to go.” She had gotten clever about forcing commitments from him.
Without further objection, Mason used the store phone to call the restaurant. While the clerk was completing the dress transaction Mason heard her asking Gail if it was a special occasion.
“No, I guess not,” Gail answered. But Mason saw something else pass between the two women, something secret that might be understood only among women. They looked at each other and smiled in a way that made him nervous.
After they had ordered their meals and taken the first sips of wine – while Mason was enduring the well-defined pause before the arrival of the meal – she told him she had been “thinking about us.”
“Were they good thoughts?” he asked, trying to make a joke out of something he knew was not going to be funny. His stomach was already reacting nervously.
“We’ve been going together for over six months now. We get along real well together. But don’t you ever think that we’re sort of holding back? I mean, don’t you ever want more for us?” She had been playing with the edge of her napkin while she spoke. But after she had asked her question, she moved her hands down into her lap and looked directly at him, waiting for his answer.
Mason smiled in a patronizing way and turned the stem of his wine glass between his fingers. The liquid sloshed around inside the glass. This wine has good legs, he thought. He marveled at the filmy traces on the sides of the glass.
He nodded as though agreeing to what she’d said, but he kept his eyes on the wine. “What more could we have?” He looked up, knowing that he needed to say more. “We have fun together, like you said. We have good meals and good wine, like what we’re having here. Our times together are relatively uncomplicated by the need to make any of the routine decisions that people have to make when they try to organize their lives as a single unit. When I’m with you it’s like a visit to an oasis, a relief from all the demands and turmoil of the rest of my days. We’ve got the best of all possible worlds. Why change it and risk messing it up?” A few drops of the wine sloshed over the lip of the glass.
“But it isn’t the best,” she said. “We don’t have much more than we had five months ago. We go out more often, but we’re still just two people who go out together occasionally. I think we mean more to each other and we should do something to recognize that. I wonder if you – no, let me correct that, maybe both of us – are afraid of commitment.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Mason said, refilling his glass and wondering whether he ought to order another bottle. “Maybe we should take another trip together. We could go to New York, or even Texas. You could see some family or old friends there. I should have a conference coming up or some kind of law suit that would provide a good excuse for going.” It didn’t occur to him that he was trying to bribe her with a trip that he could write off as a business expense. It only seemed fair to him to offer something in exchange for what he was denying.
“Oh, could we go to Texas? You could meet my parents. They’re really anxious to meet you. Especially my mother.”
“I think we could work out a trip some time in the next four or five months.” The idea was frightful, but by being vague he thought he could put it off indefinitely, a tactic that had worked well for him in the past. Mason felt he was being pressed, and when he got pressed he tended to gravitate toward his well-developed defense mechanisms.
Gail spoke again about her mother. “Do you know what would really make my mother happy, Mason?”
“What?” he asked, taking another big swallow of wine and wondering how much more he would have to drink before it had the desired effect.
“It would make her happy that her daughter had gotten engaged to a man as wonderful as you.”
“Engaged?” Mason said it with the fatalistic surprise of a soldier commenting on a sudden mortal wound he had just sustained. He looked at his shirt front but there were no marks.
“Haven’t you thought about that, Mason?”
“Woooeee,” he said, looking up and shaking his head slowly. “You know how I feel about marriage or anything even close to it. I’ve had bad experiences. You know that. I don’t like to even think about going through something like that again.”
“But Mason, it wouldn’t happen again. You don’t really think it would, do you?”
He squirmed, sorting through responses, looking for the least offensive one, feeling the effects of the wine finally starting to seep into his brain. He sincerely did not want to hurt her. He thought he loved her, whatever that might mean. And she looked beautiful in her new dress.
“Look. None of us knows what the future holds. Of course, I don’t think it would definitely work out as another failure,” he said. “But life is so unpredictable and it gets even more so any time we make changes. Besides, there’s a part of me that you haven’t seen much of. In the long run, I’m neglectful and irresponsible toward the people who should be closest to me. I perform best in the uncertainties of a day-to-day relationship. Believe me, Gail, I’ve been a different person when I’ve been married. Ask my first two wives.”
She looked at him without speaking for a few seconds. He wondered if she was going to cry or hit him over the head with the near empty wine bottle.
“Do you think I’m like them?” she asked. “Or that any relationship you have is destined to sink into failure, like you’re not capable of anything better. I think you are. Don’t forget, I’ve been divorced too. But I have faith in my ability to avoid that again.”
“No, no,” he said, back-peddling rapidly. “But Terri, my second one, was nothing like Jane. And I married both of them because I thought I loved them and it seemed like the appropriate thing to do to make lives together. I was wrong and there was a lot of grief because of that.”
“But you weren’t entirely to blame. You know that. It’d be different with you and me. We’re capable of working things out together, like right now.”
We have three failed marriages between us, Mason thought. We are losers.
The waiter brought their meals and the conversation ended. Mason ordered another bottle of wine. He commented on how good his stuffed crepes were, barely having tasted them, and to his relief Gail switched topics. She began comparing the meal to others they had eaten at other restaurants.
Later, when he took her back to her condominium, he did not make any sexual advances and acted as though he was exhausted. He was afraid that sex might represent for her some kind of affirmative answer to her earlier questions.
As he was leaving, she kissed him in the doorway and said, “You’ll think about what we talked about at dinner, won’t you?”
“Sure. Sure. I will. I promise.”
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