The picture window was large, befitting their home, an ample modern ranch, more room than the three of them needed: four spacious bedrooms, a den, dining room, vast kitchen, paneled basement. It was still new, not even five years old. And everything worked, he marveled. A far cry from the slums of his Brooklyn boyhood. Hands behind his back, he stared out the picture window at the Nebraska void, endless acres of fields he'd bought for a song when they moved in, then promptly donated to a conservancy, allowing privacy and quiet without the onus of the taxman. "Taxation is theft," Stan reminded himself for the millionth time. He hadn't consulted Sondra on this move. It was too self-evident to doubt.
At 36, all seemed settled, almost on autopilot. Not perfect, but smooth. Stan shrugged. "Smooth is good. Or at least not bad."
December, Christmas creeping closer. Stan hadn't begun shopping yet. He didn't want to think about it, at least not for a few days.
Stan liked to stare out his picture window, lost in daydreams, vivid and overpowering. Sometimes, at night, lights turned off, he liked to pretend he was in a space ship, surveying the universe.
Sondra entered the living room, startling him. "Stan! We need to talk." A half-hour later Sondra marched to her Jetta in the breezeway, little Timothy by the wrist, suitcase in her other hand, and sped away, into the Nebraska sunshine.
Stan would never see them again.
When Stan was young, a junior in high school, he had a girlfriend, Tammy. Tammy was blonde and laughed easily. She was his steady. Then one morning, walking to the newsstand, Stan overheard a couple of guys on the corner. "Yeah, too bad about that girl. Throat slashed. I hope they catch the bastard." Stan shuddered at the thought of such a gruesome murder, but it wasn't until a few hours later that he learned that the victim was Tammy.
They never caught the bastard.
That crime was a demarcation point in the life of Stanley Korbach; he never fully recovered. For him, everything fell into one of two eras: before and after.
He graduated, with honors, enlisted in the navy, sailed several of the seven seas. From there, a state college, and onto a grad degree at Nebraska Tech. A chem whiz, he landed a good job National Polymer in Paine, Nebraska. He was fine. But he wasn't. Stanley Korbach was broken.
That afternoon Sondra had said, "You never seem to be present. Your mind is elsewhere. I thought I could change you over time, once we were married, once you had a child. You pay no attention to Timothy! Try as I did, you didn't budge. You are self-absorbed at a level one could describe as pernicious. What’s the matter with you? Are you autistic? You should see a doctor, but you refuse to! Well, I'm taking Timothy and going home to Mother. I'll send Jeremy in due course to retrieve the rest of my things." While she rattled on, Stan thought about life on Mars. Or Neptune. What would it be like to walk on Neptune? First of all, you'd need a special suit to provide air and deal with the gravity...
He'd never told Sondra, or anyone, about Tammy. Tammy O'Hara was something too precious to share.
Stan returned to earth to hear Sondra still fuming. "And why, oh why, did you have to donate all that land to a conservancy? Dammit! I'd like some neighbors, you know, actual human beings! Within earshot! People! Life! Children for Timothy to play with! This isn’t life! Unless you think life on the moon—dead and gray and dry and barren—is life! This isn’t life! It's not even a good death!" She took a deep breath then continued, "If I may ask, why did you ask me to marry you?"
"I dunno. I wasn't gettin' any younger. And, I guess, y'know, I figured you were about as good as I could do."
"Really? Well, doesn't that just take the sweet biscuit? Isn't that just roses and lollipops? Gee, ain't I the lucky girl?" Her voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper. Stan wasn't sure he heard it all correctly, but nixed the notion of asking her to repeat it.
The house, freshly vacant of wife and child, was quiet. Calm. Stan sat on the couch, faced a modern painting on the opposite wall, blotches of black on white. He consoled himself, with a faux bravado, "Hah! Don't need that gal, anyhoo. Never really loved her. Not really." But he was scared.
The modern painting had been executed by Sondra's brother, Jeremy, he the pseudo-Spaniard who, after a post-college trip to Spain, had formulated that persona, complete with the obnoxious bota worn around his shoulder by a strap, the eternal conversation piece. He loved to squirt sangria into the gaping maws of giggling floozies, usually co-eds at the third-rate art school he punched a clock at. And his Flamenco albums! And his quoting of Cervantes! And his wearing of sandals hand-tooled in Catalan! And his membership card to the Spanish Communist Party! He flashed that flimsy piece of cardboard that at parties to establish his bona fides, prattling, "The American Communist Party is booshwah." Jeremy tossed "booshwah" around like confetti. Often was the time he tied that noose around Stan's neck and tugged it tight. Stan was terminally "booshwah."
Jeremy's paintings were as phony as he. It was a racket, this modern art, Stan felt. All Jeremy did to create one of his "avant-garde" masterpieces was to paint an oversize stretched canvas white, then rollered black areas, then dripped splatters of red or blue or orange, depending on what was handy, right out of the can. Finally, cherry on top, he'd sprinkle dirt onto the wet paint, not much, a handful. He claimed it was sand from the Mediterranean, but Stan knew for a fact it was just local dirt. Jeremy often did these things with his eyes closed, or blind drunk, meditating on, he said, the burning anger he felt towards his mother. Mother! The supposed she-beast whom Sondra was scampering home to. Stan laughed to himself, "Malignant monster or mother hen? How about just a royal pain in the backside?"
Regarding his work, Jeremy would pontificate on the flatness of the picture plane, that careworn dogma dictated by Clement Greenberg. And the deconstruction of painting as a window or a narrative, a little story for the booshwah blockheads. One time Stan committed the Grievous Error of mentioning his attending a show of Andrew Wyeth, whereupon Jeremy doubled over in laughter. Recovering, gasping, Jeremy sputtered, "What's next? Norman Rockwell?"
Jeremy. In his studio. Squat, barrel-chested, spindly legs. Wearing nothing but a pair of Australian-army khaki shorts and sandals. Facing a canvas like a matador the bull. Full of Freud-fueled fury at Mommy. Jeremy, turning to face Stan and to laugh in Stan's face like a braying jackass. Stan stood there, wordless, steaming, thinking, "What on earth is wrong with Andrew Wyeth! Or Norman Rockwell, for that matter!"
Stan, back to his picture window, watched the setting sun, contemplated the loss of a wife and son. "Well, so be it," he mused. "The two of them were a pain, truth to tell. One more annoying than the other. And at age five, Timothy still sucking his thumb." He shrugged, formally freeing himself of them.
Now there was a newly minted demarcation point in his life, a second division bell.
Sondra never got Stan's jokes. One night, when they were both sitting in bed reading magazines, he began laughing, stopped for a pause, then restarted. She asked, "What on earth is so damn funny?" He said, "I just got an idea, a book titled: 'An Ant' by Aunt Anne." Saying it made him explode with laughter. She looked at him as if he were a crazy person.
"Look, it's a kind of palindrome. And a pun! See, an ant, the insect, written by a woman named Aunt Anne. What? It's funny!"
She snapped, "You’re such an idiot," and went back to scouring her magazine. He tried to read, but kept chortling. He made a concerted effort to contain the laugher, but that only made him shake like a lunatic with St. Vitus Dance.
"Please! I am trying to read my magazine!" This made him explode with laughter, tossing his head back roaring, gales of grimacing-in-pain laughter.
Now he was alone, and not laughing.
Never much of a drinker, Stan found himself in need of a drink. He padded over to the den's bar, poured a large tumbler of Scotch. Back on the couch, he took a long swig. No ice. Like a hearty glass of tap water. Except it was Scotch. The loss of a wife and a son was worth a drink, was worth Scotch, even if the spouse and kiddie were nothing to write home about.
The next morning, a little worse for the wear, Stan locked the house, got in his MG, and drove east, to NYC, specifically to visit the old neighborhood, to visit a ghost. Tammy was the one he really loved, Tammy O'Hara, green eyes flashing from behind blonde locks. She'd been the dream, a portrait of female perfection in bobby sox and saddle shoes, a plaid skirt, a cardigan. It wasn't Sondra's fault, or anyone's, that they could never live up to the vision of Tammy dancing at a CYO sock-hop. No one can compete with a memory of an angel.
Driving across long prairie stretches, there was no radio to be had, just the thrum of tires on macadam. On long straightaways, he floored it, drove 90 MPH for miles on end. Once, he edged the sports car up to 110. If he'd blown a tire, it would’ve meant oblivion. He didn't care.
Crossing Ohio, surrounded on either side by cornfields, he found an oldies station, one that played a song by The Showmen, a song that had been Stan and Tammy's song. It wasn't a love song in the usual sense. It was a love song to rock ‘n’ roll, and maybe to the rock ‘n’ roll generation, to the young, to those for whom the horizon seemed to stretch for eternity.
He could see Tammy looming as large as life.
In the middle of godforsaken nowhere, he swerved off the road, came to a halt. For the first time since 1962 he exploded in emotion, cried in the ecstasy of release, alone as a star in the cold black sky, fingers splayed by the sides of his head.
The radio's serenade didn't relent. "Forgive them for they know not what they're doin'..." Ebony voices in harmony, punctuated by saxophones. "...It will be here for ever and ever... C'mon boy, join our clan..."
As if waking from slumber Stan found himself nearing NYC. Going to the old neighborhood, suddenly, was too much, too soon. At least for now. Better to work up to it, face it after a good night's sleep. So, he nosed into Manhattan, parked the MG at a garage in the Village, booked a room at an old hotel on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park, and wandered around. He drank a beer or two, then a Scotch or three, at a dive, but got the urge to walk again; he was restless, felt close to something, yet distant. He had to move, to keep moving. He hit the sidewalk and inhaled the city, the scents he'd missed: bus exhaust and hot dogs grilling and pizza sizzling. And the sounds: taxis honking, lovers quarreling, subways underfoot thundering. He was jostled by the crowd of Christmas shoppers, of people getting off work, rushing. People hustling, hurrying! Home! He walked until he was on strange turf, way west, south of the Holland Tunnel, near the Hudson. He'd never been here before and was vaguely lost. Deep in December dusk, on a desolate end-of-the-line block, he noticed a bar's sign, glowing neon green in the eventide. Green, like Tammy's eyes. He sighed and entered the bar, found it dead empty except for one gal sitting at the shadowy end of the bar, her back to him. He sat down near the door, wondered if she was good looking, and waited for the barkeep to make an appearance. The place was quiet as a tomb, blessedly free of jukebox and TV. After a few silent minutes, Stan drummed fingers on the mahogany counter. The shadow girl leaned to him and said, "Hello, stranger."
Stan turned to face Tammy.
Not exactly as she'd been. She was about 24, not 16. But not 36. Aged hardly at all, in cuffed jeans and a peacoat.
"How... I mean, you're..."
"Dead? Don't believe everything you hear, doll." She sauntered over to him, mussed his hair and smiled, a smile that stretched a mile. He knew that smile. And she laughed, as only she could laugh, from the throat. She held the sides of his head. Her hands were warm.
Tammy slipped behind the bar, grabbed a bottle of burgundy, and, head tilted toward the door, said, "Let's go to my place, right around the corner. We have so much to catch up on."