A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
June 21, 1996
In the end the men and women come and go, betraying everyone they know…
Prufrock stood and bowed slightly, holding out his arm like the maître d’ at Aldo’s Pasta Bar. In a vague and broken voice, he sang, “Isn’t it romantic?”
Surely as romantic as any strip mall diner during the lunch rush.
Madame Bovary gave the smallest nod, a niggardly morsel of attention. She slid her considerable self into the booth and picked up the menu, leaving Prufrock to clean up his own grand gesture.
“How’s your day going?” Madame Bovary asked without looking up from the menu.
“Not too good. Mitch called me into his office just as I was leaving.”
Prufrock rubbed absently at his sparse moustache. He’s a vague man altogether, not quite anything at all. His hair is not quite red and not quite orange and not quite pink. It might have been clean, but it didn’t look it; it fell off his head in greasy strands. He’s bald in the most depressing way, the infinite forehead, and, perhaps to compensate, he wears a pony-tail. Not one of those silly braided yuppie pony-tails, but a full shock of hair tied up with a rubber band — uncut, unstyled, unkempt. And his hair, seemingly, is the metaphor of his life. His face is ugly, which is nobody’s fault, but it is also painted with vague reminders of his unkempt emotional life — covetousness, petulance and a boundless resentment. His clothes were of good quality but a little rumpled, a little crumpled; I thought I caught a whiff of the hamper, but I could be mistaken.
“He actually accused me of having a drug problem,” Prufrock said. “Can you believe that?”
“Oh, you know, just stuff.” Prufrock was staring at the salt shaker. His hands were busy, and so were his feet.
“What stuff?” He had her full attention, but he didn’t notice.
“You know, I’m always late. I leave early a lot. I take these long lunches every day. I’m always so distracted. He said I’m making him look bad, and he wanted to know what the deal is.”
Madame Bovary took her time responding. “…What did you tell him?”
“Nothing. Just that I’m having some problems at home. In a way, it’s even true.”
Madame Bovary smiled a smug little smile. “In a way…”
She’s an exceptionally porcine creature. I speak not of her girth but of her attitude. It’s easy to picture her hoarding things, even things of no value, hoarding them for no reason at all. Her fat swallowed the definition of her features and left her a little puffy everywhere. She is not wholly repulsive to look at, although she’s far from attractive, and, like Prufrock, she bears the scars of a lifetime’s hostile emotions. What she lacked in natural endowment, though, she made up for in effort. She primped and pouted and preened like a bad parody of a bad stripper, and, by granting and withholding her titillations, she teased poor Prufrock into a dither. Swine before swine, I think, but it keeps them away from the pearls…
“There’ll be hell to pay if he ever figures out what’s going on…”
“He should mind his own business!”
Prufrock smiled, a tight, bitter little smile. “This is his business. I lied to him, and I’m lying to my wife. If he finds out, he’ll wonder what else I’m lying about…”
“…Do you think he suspects anything?”
He couldn’t have looked any more pained if someone had reached into his torso and pulled out a kidney. “I have a sterling reputation for integrity…”
“Darn right!” said Madame Bovary. “And who deserves it more than you?”
Prufrock couldn’t bear to look at anything. His eyes finally stopped on me, sitting in the booth across the aisle. I shook my head as if to say, “No help here, buddy.”
“And what if he does find out?” said Madame Bovary. “Big deal! Didn’t you say you’d sacrifice everything for me? Didn’t you say that you want to squander everything you have, just to make sure nothing in your past can compete with me for your attention? Didn’t you say you want to impoverish yourself, so you can grow fat on the nectar of my love?”
Prufrock pushed his fork around, searching in vain for the right way to say the wrong thing. “…My career means a lot to me…”
“More than me? Is that what you’re saying? That some stupid job means more to you than I do? You said you loved me more than anything! Did you mean anything except your job?!” There weren’t any tears, but the delicate napkin swabbing was just as effective.
“Honey, you know that’s not what I mean! It’s just that…”
“Just that what?” Madame Bovary’s eyes were like stones. She was drumming her fingers on the table.
“Just…” Prufrock pushed the fork this way and that way, but he couldn’t find anything under it. “Oh, nothing…”
Madame Bovary nodded knowingly. “That’s what he does.”
“That’s what who does?” Prufrock demanded.
“He pulls back. Whenever we start to get a little bit close to my issues, he distances himself.”
“Are you saying that’s what I’m doing? Is that it?”
“Oh, no!” She laughed unconvincingly. “You’re not at all like him, honestly.”
She held up her hand like a Girl Scout. “You have my solemn word of honor.”
That seemed to placate him, but even a whipped dog can growl. After a moment he looked up, his face half frightened, half triumphant. He said, “He has your solemn word of honor, too…”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?!”
“Nothing! Nothing! I was just thinking out loud, that’s all.”
“Thinking about what?”
Prufrock took his time answering, but there was no help for it. “…It just seems so funny to talk about your solemn word of honor, considering…”
“Well… You know!”
“Do you think I could lie to you?” Madame Bovary demanded. “After all I’ve gone through to be with you? I lie to my husband every day. I lie to all my friends and I make my friends lie for me. I lie to my children, to my parents, to my boss and everyone at work. I steal money from my family to spend on you. I cheat my family of time to spend it with you. There isn’t anyone or anything I haven’t corrupted for the sake of our love. Do you honestly think, after all that, that I could lie to you?”
Prufrock was abashed. “When you put it that way…”
“Our relationship is based on — what?”
“Trust,” he said. If he had a tail, it would have been thump, thump, thumping on the seat.
“That’s right,” said Madame Bovary. “Trust and a commitment to total honesty. I don’t mind telling lies to him. He can’t see me for what I am. Not like you.” She snuggled up to him with her eyes.
Prufrock snuggled back, basking in the glow of the moment. Then he said, “He doesn’t suspect anything, does he?”
She laughed again. “He trusts me completely!”
“…You sound almost… proud.”
She smiled smugly. “Well, maybe I am.”
“Yeah? Well how do you know he’s not running around on you?”
“Please! His word is his life. He’d eat broken glass before he’d break his word to anyone!”
“…Unlike me, huh?”
“That’s not what I meant!” For the first time in their lunch date, Madame Bovary wasn’t quite in control. “You’re not at all like him. Sure, he lives for things like honor and integrity and fidelity. But he doesn’t give a damn about my feelings. When I’m with him, I feel like something inside me is dying, just withering away to dust…”
“And when you’re with me…?”
She smiled, and it was a smile of genuine warmth. “I feel like a teenager again…”
They mused and eye-cuddled together from across the table. Madame Bovary nibbled delicately on an enormous corned beef sandwich and Prufrock measured out another little bit of his life with a coffee spoon. There is worthiness, which is difficult; it can never be supplied by another, and it can never be faked. And there is worship, which is demanding; you can fake the virtues the worshipper worships, but you dare not falter. And then there is adulation, which is very, very easy; it is wholly faked, and the price is never higher than quid pro quo. They basked together in the glow of their romance, the romance made so much more grand and perfect because it was so bungled and so botched, so frantic, so furtive, a grand and perfect fraud.
Prufrock finally broke the silence by saying, “You are my queen!”
Madame Bovary wriggled the royal fundament on the naugahyde upholstery. She ran her finger along the top of his hand. “You’ve really given up everything for me, haven’t you?”
“Everything! I have nothing left to hold me back or bargain with me for tribute. I have no pride, no purpose, no integrity. No honor. No courage. No resolve. No regrets, even. I have nothing. I am nothing. I lay myself prostrate at your feet, vulnerable to any injury you might inflict upon me. I have destroyed myself that I might be worthy of you…”
Madame Bovary actually giggled at this, and who could blame her?
“I am dung for you,” said Prufrock. “No, I am less than dung. I am the fly swarming the dung. No, I’m the maggot writhing on the dung.” She winced and he added, “I’m sorry to be so graphic, but I’m trying to make a point.”
“You’re making me sick.”
From the back of the diner a gruff voice called out, “You’re not alone, sister!”
She gave him a dirty look and he switched to an urgent, insistent whisper — which carries much farther, of course. “I used to think that love was trading value for value. But that was before I met you. It was my values — my fidelity, my integrity, my honor — that I had to give up to have you, and I did it gladly! I’m nothing, that’s all. Just nothing. And I’m all yours…”
“Forever…?” she teased.
“I know it,” said Madame Bovary. “You can’t do this twice, after all. You can tell your family and friends that your marriage was a horrible mistake, that it’s killing your spirit. They won’t like it, but they’ll live with it. Once. But you can’t play that tune a second time, not ever.” There was no face-saving way he could ever escape her, and I imagined that inside her mind there was a little girl skipping around chanting, “No more competition! No more competition!” Inside his mind I pictured the words, “No choice!,” with the sound of a jail cell door slamming shut.
As if to underscore who was the jailer and who the jailed, she turned to me and gave me a smutty wink. It made me want to puke.
He didn’t notice, thank god. The last thing I needed was an altercation with a jealous middle-aged, pony-tailed geek. That wink meant nothing and I knew it. She’d probably never sleep around on Prufrock for love or lust. Revenge is another matter, though, and I’d put nothing past her if she comes to despise him as much as she despises her husband. Her hatred is her proof of her victimization, and her victimization is her license to victimize. And the one question the love-struck adulterer never dares to ask is this one: If she’ll do it with me, why wouldn’t she do it to me?
But even a whipped dog can growl. No choice! No choice! No choice! Prufrock looked at nothing and said, “It’s much more demanding than marriage, isn’t it? More… binding, somehow… It’s almost like… blackmail, isn’t it?”
“What did you say to me?!”
“Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!”
“What did you say to me?!”
“Nothing! Honest! I didn’t mean anything!”
She slid out of the booth and stood up, which isn’t nearly as dramatic as standing up abruptly from a table.
“Where are you going?” Prufrock whimpered. Any whipped dog can whimper.
“What do you care?”
“Honey? Don’t go! Honey, I love you! You know that, don’t you? I didn’t mean anything, honest!”
Madame Bovary, Prufrock’s queen, gathered up the considerable royal dignity and bustled out of the diner.
In the silence, I thought I heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I don’t think they were singing to Prufrock, though…
I looked at him and said, “She’ll be back.”
He didn’t look up, just scowled at his sandwich. “How do you know?”
I considered and rejected three replies before I arrived at one he could comfortably misunderstand. “You were made for each other.”
He smiled dreamily. “Yeah…”
“Yeah. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. Every day. Just like in the movies. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, every day for lunch. Teenagers forever with your damp butts stuck to the vinyl…”
He started, not sure what he’d just heard. “Who are you, anyway?”
I smiled. I swear I didn’t snicker. “I’m the eternal footman, I guess. It’s a living…” I stood up, plopped a dollar tip on the table and walked out into the sunlight.