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Mason had a beer, fixed dinner, tried to watch bits of the network news on TV, and generally struggled to settle himself from the tension of his trip with Gail to the abortion clinic. But it wasn’t working. The emptiness of the house only seemed to threaten some new intrusion into his peace of mind. He had a lingering expectation that Gail would phone him with some request that he would feel bound to fulfill.
After he had loaded the dishes into the dishwasher, he realized that there was little for him to do at home besides trying to watch TV. He dialed the phone number of George’s girlfriend, where George was now staying, but there was no answer. Still, he felt compelled to get out, so he combed his hair, put on his coat, and departed with no particular destination in mind.
He wanted to hear live music that was not too raucous, to drink a beer, and to look at other people. He went to a place called Fletcher’s Inn, the latest name in a series that had changed on a nearly annual basis for as long as Mason could remember. There was something about the place that was slightly seedy and that had the smell of failure about it. At least the current owner booked good live music. The current entertainment was a female singer accompanied by a piano, and Mason arrived about an hour before their scheduled start.
He took a small table near the back, where he would not need to feel conspicuous and not be concerned about hoarding a space that a couple might want. He stretched his legs out, slid down a little in the chair, and savored his first beer, concluding that this had been exactly the right thing to do. There was a lot to be said for anonymity. It did not last long, however. Mason had been there about thirty minutes and was already starting to become bored when Elaine Bettendorff arrived. She scanned the patrons methodically, spotted Mason, and without giving any sign of recognition walked directly to his table.
Mason tucked his legs back and sat up straight. Elaine pulled over a chair from another table and sat down.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked.
“No, no. That’d be great.” He was thrilled with his good fortune. It was the first time he had ever met her away from school. Several times he had thought about trying to contact her, had gotten out the card on which she had written her phone number, but then had put it away again without calling. He feared that their uniquely defined relationship, faculty and student, might not stand the strain of a closer acquaintance. He had enjoyed the mystery and slightly kinky undertones that had touched their meetings in his office. At the moment, however, he was willing to abandon all reluctance. After a few hours of tending to Gail at the clinic he needed a boost. He saw Elaine as someone who might provide it.
“What brings you out tonight?” she asked.
“I was alone at home and restless. You know how it is.” He wondered if she did.
She asked him if he had been there long.
“No, just a few minutes.” He wouldn’t want her to think he sat alone in bars. “They often have pretty good music here.”
It was an insipid conversation and it continued in that vein for several minutes. He was reluctant to tell her about the abortion. He wanted to talk to someone about it, but he also felt an obligation to protect Gail’s privacy. Of equal and maybe greater consideration, he assumed that most other women would not want to hear about his role in an abortion.
The level of trust between him and Elaine was not great. In fact, they knew almost nothing about each other and neither of them had ever attempted to correct that deficiency. It had been all sex, mostly instigated by her. They were an associate professor in his forties and a student in her twenties, which made them inappropriate by common social standards. Mason had never lost sight of that, even in the midst of some of their most intimate moments in his office. He thought it strange that apparently she was interested in him, but he was flattered by it and determined to enjoy it to the fullest, expecting that it could end as abruptly as it had begun.
When the music started it was too loud to permit them to continue talking without shouting. The singer was good, pleasantly melancholy, and if Mason had been alone he might have wanted to stay through her last set. But he drank with urgency and gazed upon Elaine Bettendorff with barely restrained lust. At the end of the fourth song, he asked her if she would like to go somewhere else.
She flashed a doubting half-smile. “Bars are all pretty much alike.”
He wasn’t sure whether that was a yes or a no. “I wasn’t thinking necessarily of another bar.”
“What were you thinking of?” She tilted her head, stared at him, and smiled more fully this time.
The truth was that he had not been thinking that far ahead, assuming that he would get her agreement first and then figure out with her where they would go. Pressed for an answer, he gave the one that required the least thought. “How about my place?”
She hesitated, continuing to look at him for a few seconds before answering. “Sounds fine. Let’s do it.”
She tipped up her glass and finished the remains of the Manhattan she had been drinking. Mason had not expected things to move so rapidly. He still had almost half of a glass of beer. He took a couple quick swallows and left the rest. She had her own car, so he waited in his until she pulled up beside him and then followed him home.
They went directly to his bedroom, had sex once and then, at her urging, again. The second time he lasted longer and she squirmed and moaned more, clutching him tightly.
“Do you think this is OK?” he asked afterwards, not quite sure what he meant.
“Don’t you? I mean, it’s a little late to be thinking about that.”
“No regrets. I enjoyed it. I mean who could not.” He felled compelled to compliment her. “It’s all so immediate, so much in the moment. I think it bothers me that I can’t identify the purpose. Do you know what I mean?”
“What other purpose should it have? Do you want us to be in love? If you do, you can forget that idea.”
His pride crumbled a little and he made a face. “Don’t be so certain. Nothing’s impossible. But I didn’t say I wanted that anyway.”
They had been lying on their backs next to each other. She rolled onto her side and put a hand on his head, turning it so they were face-to-face. “Mason. Some things are impossible.”
“Do you know how old I am?” he asked.
“Do you care?”
“It’s not like having my father fuck me, if that’s what you meant.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“You never asked before.”
“I have to leave.”
“Because I want to.”
“OK. I suppose you only like me for the sex anyway.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. Most males are about the same in matters of sex.”
“What if you became pregnant?”
“That isn’t going to happen?”
“What if it did?”
“You’d never know about it, so you’ve got no reason to ask.”
She went into the bathroom. When she came out he heard her go down the hall to the kitchen. He lay there, only half covered by a sheet, listening to her sounds, wondering who she was.
“What were you doing?”
“Looking at your house.”
“Did you learn anything?”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she pulled on her clothing, then slipped on her shoes and stood up. She was facing away from him, buttoning her blouse. “No.” she said in answer to his question. “But I wasn’t trying. That wasn’t the point.”
“So, what was? The point, I mean.”
“Sex, Mason. That’s all. In sex, men show women the same regard all the time, and then they act surprised when they get it back from a woman. It’s just sex. And sometimes it’s good. That’s what we always hope for, isn’t it?”
She got her coat from the front room and stood in the bedroom doorway with her car keys already in her hand. He had offered at the bar to take her in his car, but she had declined, following him to his home in her own car, always seeming to provide herself with an escape.
“I’m leaving now.”
“Yes. I see that you are. Drive carefully.”
He had the impression that he would never see her again.
For the next hour, Mason continued to lie there in bed, one arm crooked behind his head, the other flung over the empty place beside him. The doorbell rang. He looked at the clock. It was a little after two in the morning. When he didn’t respond to the doorbell, George let himself in.
“Anybody home?” George called from the kitchen.
“No,” Mason answered irritably.
George came down the hallway and stood in the open doorway. “Hum, smells like sex in here.” He was eating a banana which he had apparently picked up in the kitchen.
“I suppose it does.” Mason got up from the bed and walked naked into the bathroom, passing George without further comment. He shut the door and turned on the shower.
The water seemed to renew him, carrying away some of the distractions that had started to feel like a second skin. Trying to figure out what was going wrong in his life, he stood there so long that George opened the door and asked him if he was all right.
“Yeah. Sure. I’m fine.” He heard the door close again. He must have worried George. It was not advisable to act in such a way that one’s closest friend became concerned. That must mean there was something to be concerned about. Mason shut off the water and stepped out of the shower.
He put on a robe and went into the kitchen. He felt that he owed George some kind of gesture of goodwill, even if he would rather have not had him there at that moment. George was heating something on the stove.
“Vienna sausage,” George said without being asked. “Want some?”
“OK.” Mason noticed that George had already brewed a cup of instant coffee, so Mason did the same and settled at the table. The day had been full of turmoil, Gail’s “procedure,” his restless trip to hear live music, his encounter with Elaine. He still felt confused, although his spirit had been lifted some by the shower and by George’s undemanding presence. The scent of the Vienna sausages heating on the stove was also comforting. It reminded him of his childhood, when those sausages had been a favorite of his.
“Kind of a rough day?” George asked.
“Gail had her abortion.”
“Oh. Right. How is she?”
Mason shrugged. “Shit, I don’t know. Physically I guess she’s fine. I’m really having a hard time with women, George.”
“So, is Gail treating you like a criminal?”
“A bit, I guess. But I keep thinking about women in general. They make assumptions. Or maybe we mislead them. I don’t know. I can see where Gail’s attitude originates – there’s no mystery to that. The part I don’t get is… is…” He tried to think of what it was. “… The disappointment. How can she have been disappointed when I’ve always been pretty straight with her? I never told her I’d marry her. How can she be disappointed?”
George volunteered a possible answer. “I think it might have something to do with their hormones.” He removed the sausages from the heat and dished them onto two saucers. He joined Mason at the table and shoved one of the plates in front of him. Mason had to get up to get a fork. George liked to eat his with his fingers.
“And this girl who was here tonight,” Mason continued, “I really don’t understand her either, maybe at least partly because she’s about twenty years younger than me.”
“Yeah? I don’t think your problem has anything to do with her age.”
George shrugged. “It’s hopeless, man. We weren’t meant to be able to figure it out. That’s what makes life interesting. Besides, even if you understood why some women acted the way they do, what difference would it make? It’s not as if that would change anything.”
“Come on, George. If I knew what was wrong I could try to correct it. I could try to become a better person.” He intended to make it sound like a joke, but George recognized that it wasn’t.
“Shit.” George shook his head in evident disbelief of what Mason was saying.
“OK. I could try. I could try, George.”
George shook his head again, total denial. “The point is, why would you want to? Think of all the years that have gone into making you the person you are today. You’re uniquely you, and anyone who’s interested can see what that amounts to. They should either take it or leave it. You can’t try to remake yourself for every new skirt that comes along. They don’t do that for any man.”
“Do you think we expect them to?”
George munched on his sausage for a moment, considering. “We’ve all got our own ideas of what our perfect mate would be. I suppose we try to impose that framework on them. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to make any difference. It’s not rational. It’s hormones and habits, based on a lifetime of satisfactions and disappointments.”
It occurred to Mason that he did not know what George looked for in a woman. “OK, George. What’s your ideal female?”
George sucked down the remains of his beer and scratched his armpit. “Shit, I don’t know. Good looking. Good in bed. Smart. And I suppose quiet, patient, loving. And maybe it’d be nice if she were so wise that she knew me, understood what motivated me, compelled me, even when I didn’t know that kind of stuff myself.” It seemed to have embarrassed him to say those things. He quickly added, “Probably some other things too, but off hand I can’t think of them.”
“See, that’s really not much different from what I’d like. I wonder why neither of us can find it.”
George got a couple more beers from the refrigerator. “I think we’re basically self-destructive, you and me. Maybe most men are.”
“Why would you say that?”
Instead of answering in his customary glib manner, George paused thoughtfully and poked his finger into his ear. “Remember when we were in high school, how we both had the hots for Cathy Cruse?”
“Yeah, I remember her, a blonde, played hard to get. Very appealing.”
“When I think of my ideal woman, she always comes to mind. I’ve never forgotten her.” He got a dreamy look and took another swallow of his beer.
“No kidding? I didn’t realize you were that interested.”
“I don’t think I did either at the time. You and me had a bet about her, remember?”
“We bought a package of Trojans,” Mason recalled, “And split them. We both figured we would score, and the guy who failed to do that was supposed to cough up five dollars. But no money ever changed hands, did it?”
They looked at each other, trying to read the message. George snickered and shook his head. Mason grinned. Mason got up from the table and went into the bedroom. When he came back with his five dollar bill, George had already laid his own on the table. Neither of them had scored. They both burst out laughing.
“Why do we have so much regard for the ones who don’t give in?” Mason asked.
“It’s because sex is dirty. There ain’t no way around it. The adults tried to drill that into us when we were kids, just to keep us out of trouble as we stampeded into puberty.”
It occurred to Mason that he had been so preoccupied with his own frustrations that he had not found out why George was there. There was one obvious possibility. “Did Tina kick you out tonight, or what?”
George ducked his head momentarily and brought it back up with the beer can at his lips. He swallowed and sighed and said that she had. “I really wasn’t ready for it, either. I mean, I really like being with her. I thought if maybe I could stay here tonight I might be able to get things patched up with her tomorrow. Look, I brought you a present.” George pulled out a brown paper bag from beneath the table. He handed it to Mason. “Tina likes to go to these antique stores. I was with her and saw this stein and remembered your collection.”
Mason’s collection consisted of about thirty steins that he had gathered primarily while he had been in college. Most of them were plain except for the emblems of colleges and universities. These days they sat on a shelf in the kitchen and he ignored them. The one in the sack was a silly German thing with dancing burgher meisters on it and a music box in the base that did not work. George had never given him a gift, unless Mason counted the two wedding presents that had really been for his brides. “This is really beautiful, George But what’d you do it for? You know you can stay here anytime you want.”
“That’s not the point. I felt like doing it.”
Mason supposed George actually meant it had something to do with Tina. Mason didn’t try to figure it any further than that. He poured his beer into the stein and they drank on for another hour, joking and recalling old times. They were unguarded and unconcerned. They were loyal in the way that men in battle are loyal, depending upon one another. It was simple, and nothing more complex could ever replace it. After awhile, Mason declined another beer and said he was going back to bed. He thought he might sleep well for the first time in at least a couple weeks.
George drank on alone, while Mason rinsed out the stein and dried it. To demonstrate his appreciation, he tried to make a place for it on the shelf. It was then that he found the baggie of powder. He was moving the steins around, trying to make room, and reached behind the second row to see why he could not push the University of Washington any further back. His fingers touched the soft pouch and he brought it out.
“What’s this?” He asked it rhetorically, but George got up to see anyway.
“Looks like your stash.”
“Narcotics? I don’t keep anything like this in my house.”
“That’s what it looks like.” George tried to joke about the discovery. “Hey, if you don’t want to share, all you’ve got to do is say so.”
The baggie contained at least an ounce of the white powder. Mason knew clearly that he had never had any powdered drugs in the house, only a little pot. Drugs scared him; and it scared him even more to find some deliberately hidden and completely unknown to him.
“You put this here, didn’t you? I mean, if it was a joke just tell me.”
At another time George might have joked, but sensing Mason’s concern he answered seriously. “I swear, Mason. I never saw that stuff until you pulled it out from behind that beer stein. What do you suppose it is?”
Mason opened the bag and each of them moistened a fingertip, collected a tiny trace of powder, and then touched it to an extended tongue.
“I could feel it go numb,” Mason said after a few seconds.
“Me too. Might be coke.”
“Or what else?”
“I think heroin is white like this, isn’t it? That’s what I saw in a movie.”
“Ohhh shit,” Mason said. “You don’t really think this could be heroin, do you? How could it have gotten into my house. People don’t leave stuff like heroin or even coke lying around. That stuff is expensive.”
“You gonna try to sell it?”
“That’s not funny, George.”
Mason dragged a chair over to the shelf and stood on it to see behind the other steins. There were no other packets. He checked the other shelves and then did a quick search of the other rooms. Nothing more.
“Did you check the freezer?” George asked. “I saw a movie once where some bad guys were keeping drugs in their freezer.”
Mason went immediately to his refrigerator and poked around in the freezer portion, which was not difficult because it held only a frozen whole chicken that had been there for about two years and a few boxes of frozen vegetables.
“OK,” Mason said. “It must be just this one bag. I don’t get it.”
“When was the last time you looked back there?”
“Couple years, maybe. I don’t know. It could have been any time since then, couldn’t it. Jesus, I’ve had a few chippies in my house in that time, more than I can remember. Some of them I barely knew their names. But what gets me is why would anyone want to leave this?”
“I don’t know. A present maybe. Or maybe a forgotten stash.”
“Maybe it’s got poison in it. Do you think? Maybe somebody’s trying to get me. I’ve heard about drugs that were laced with poison. I feel kind of funny already. What about you?”
“I don’t know, Mason. That little taste we took wasn’t enough to dose a flea. I feel fine. Look, I got the solution.” George took the baggie from Mason’s hands and carried it down the hallway with Mason following. He went into the bathroom and without ceremony dumped the powder into the toilet and flushed it. They watched it swirl around and then disappear.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have done that,” Mason said. “It was probably worth some money to somebody. It was about an ounce, which I think is a large quantity for a hard drug.”
George just looked at him.
Mason asked, “What about the bag?”
George still held the empty bag in his hand. He looked at it uncertainly, then dropped it too into the toilet and flushed again.
“Oh shit, man,” Mason objected. “Won’t that plastic fuck up my plumbing?”
George shrugged and flushed a third time. There was not a trace of anything left and the water still flowed as freely as before. “Looks OK to me.”
They stood there watching the toilet fill again with water.
“Wow. I still don’t get it,” Mason said.
“Nothin’ to get any more. If I can use your spare bedroom, I’ll be going to bed.”
Mason shut down the house then, switching off the lights and lowering the heat before retiring to his own room. The kind of consuming sleep that he had expected to embrace him did not arrive. He wondered about the white powder and then worried about his relationship with Gail. He woke up often, at one time so warm that he tossed the covers back, only to wake up later from a chill. It seemed that he had just gotten into a real sleep when he was awakened by the doorbell. He intended to ignore it, but Gail let herself in with a key and called out to Mason.
There was a grayish light of early morning outside, and Mason saw from his bedside clock that it was 6:30. He sighed with the expectation that Gail’s visit at such an hour could only mean she had something she regarded as important that she wanted to discuss with him. He wondered how much more he could take.
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