A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
June 12, 2013
“Your uncle’s kinda creepy.” Megwyn’s friend Calliope said that. I used to think Megwyn was the dumbest name I’d ever heard of for a girl, but Calliope – once Homer’s muse, now just a noisy sideshow nuisance – owns that trophy now.
“Not creepy, eccentric. He taught me that word. Anyway, he’s not my uncle. People just call him ‘Uncle Willie.’” That was Megwyn herself speaking.
“If he’s not your uncle then why are we here?” She said it ‘hee-yerr,’ a quick elision with a backspin of contempt mixed with affected boredom.
“Would you rather be back with Cheryl and Jeff?”
I wasn’t eavesdropping, just inescapably overhearing. Young people seem to think that, if you’re involved in one conversation, you can’t hear another. We were at The Handlebar, a very dog-friendly indoor-outdoor cantina in downtown Tempe. I was ordering drinks for the three of us – water for me, sodas for the girls – and arranging a water bowl for Naso, but they were so loud I couldn’t avoid hearing what they were saying.
Tempe is a little piece of Austin or Boulder in the midst of the vast, ever-inflating bouncy-house that is endlessly-suburban Phoenix. It is home to Arizona State University, which means there is a captive audience of 30,000 students and maybe 20,000 more ex-students and hangers-on within a mile or so of The Handlebar.
In consequence, Tempe is the only reliable night-life in The Valley, as it is called, the only consistent street life, the only place for rich people – the older ones settled down in Scottsdale, the young ones chasing that six-year bachelor’s degree on daddy’s dime from places like Sherman Oaks or La Jolla – to revel together while pretending to be bohemians. When a middle-aged multi-millionaire can shamble down Mill Avenue looking like a scruffy young Bob Dylan on MacDougal Street – well, that’s the kind of lie money alone can’t buy.
But downtown Tempe has always been one of Naso’s favorite places. There are always city dogs on the street, dogs who live in apartments and have to be taken for walks. And the pedestrians – pedestrians in Phoenix?; who knew? – love to interact with my prettygirl. She has literally gone belly-up in the middle of the street, so much does she love the attention. And they adore her at The Handlebar, since she is just the kind of friendly dog dog-friendly businesses appeal to. If I let her off the lead, she would happily work the tables like an assistant manager, kissing hands and snarfling up french fries.
“It’s lucky you’re here now,” I said to Megwyn.
She was looking down under the outdoor table, Naso’s huge head wedged into her lap, her hands dug deep into the thick folds of skin under and around her ears. “Her face is so white…”
“That’s all happening now. I can see her getting grayer all over, every day. Adora thinks she only has a few weeks left.”
Urf. There is way too much back-story here, and I’ve never dealt with any of it. Adora is Adoracion, my wife, who I met when I engaged her as Naso’s veterinarian, almost ten years ago in Show Low. Megwyn is Naso’s original person, snuggling up to my puppy when she was still a little girl. All of this is complicated and I’ll get to it eventually, but Megwyn stayed with me and Naso for a little while that ended much too soon, and I’ve tried to be a good friend to her ever since.
She’s nineteen years old by now, and she seems to be growing into her adulthood. She was a mousy little girl, to say the truth, a skinny little tow-head with her shoulders always folded in on themselves. But I couldn’t raise her and her mama couldn’t raise her and there was a time when I thought she might grow up to be yet another adult baby – like there’s a shortage. But she’s always been willing to look at the world through her own eyes, and that’s the best insurance against bullshitters.
She’s a looker, if I’m any judge, honey-blonde hair, warm blue eyes and a sweet, round Irish face. She’s not tall – tall women no longer grow in the land of milk and sugar cookies – but she is possessed of that rarest of commodities among young American women: A waist. Meg has always been a little sweetheart, and I was glad to see that she seems to be weathering the ravages of jackass young guys pretty well.
Calliope, well, not so much. She’s a little taller than Megwyn, and a lot heavier. She’s not fat, precisely, she’s just laying the groundwork for it, bulges here, wattles there and a muffin-top that promises someday to topple the whole muffin. And even though there is no way to lie about the obvious, still she deploys every trick in the fashion magazine to pull the eyes upward: Short, chopped-up hair, gaudy earrings, a nose ring and a removable-masks’s worth of chalky, flaky make-up.
And her eyes… When people think they’re being conned, they squint a little bit. When they think they’re being hustled all the time, they squint all the time. You wear your thoughts while you hold them, and the thoughts you hold most end up wearing you. Your face freezes like that, just like your mama told you. A lot of someones – my guess would be jackass young guys – are telling lies to Calliope all the time – and she knows it. I would expect she’s lying to them, too, but more pathetically. But you don’t get eyes locked into a squint like that without voluntarily putting up with an ocean of obvious bullshit.
“So your friend’s getting beat up?” I said that.
Calliope was ready to deliver some kind of puffed-up defense, but Meg blew a little gust of breath toward her nose and said, “If you say so…”
“She called the two of you to rush down here because she said she’s being beaten by her husband?”
“You see any bruises?”
“Blood stains anywhere? Police reports? Hospital records?”
“No.” Megwyn was matter of fact, but Calliope was building up steam.
“Any fist-sized holes in the walls or doors, right about shoulder height?”
“No, of course not. The house looks lived in, but there’s nothing like that.”
“Are you saying my friend is a liar?!” That was Calliope.
“I would never do that,” I said with a smile, with Meg smiling with me. “The testimony doesn’t seem to fit the observed facts, though, does it?”
This she dismissed with a quick, scornful shrug: So much for you! People are always trying to control what I say by threatening to throw me out of the universe. It never works, but they never stop trying.
“Can I ask some more questions?”
“Sure.” Meg still had her hands dug into Naso’s thick fur, but her eyes were fixed on me.
“Two, a girl and a boy, Irish twins, three and two.”
“And he makes good money.” That wasn’t a question.
“Seems to. It’s a nice house.”
“How long has she been talking shit about him?”
“About a year.”
“Yeah, well?” That was Calliope.
I shrugged. “Happy Father’s Day.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
I ignored that. Instead I looked young Calliope right in her squinting, over-made-up eyes and said, “What would you say is the alternative to existence?”
“When something exists, there is no alternative state to that, right? A thing simply exists, either right now or at some time in the past or future. But while it exists, there is no other condition that can obtain, yes? And the universe itself – everything that exists – there can’t be any contrary to that existence, can there?”
“…What about non-existence?” You can’t get anyone to think, but you can get a whole lot of posers to spout arrant nonsense if you spoonfeed it to ’em.
“But that’s the point, there is no such thing. It’s strictly a product of your imagination. While you are alive, there is no alternative to being alive, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Well, duh…” Lies, lies, lies, all the time lies. A minute before, she had never thought about any of this, but she didn’t hesitate to try to go one up on me from a state of undiluted ignorance.
“So why do you waste so much of your life pretending to be unalive? Not dead, just not alive, not engaged, not involved. You think you’re fooling other people into thinking you’re cool, but you’re really just afraid of their disapproval. I don’t give a shit, and you’re having this hostile reaction to me because you don’t think it’s fair that I don’t have to play by your rules.”
Steamy glare, very squinty. “You know nothing about me!”
To this I smiled, and Megwyn smiled with me.
I said, “I don’t want to fight with you, so let’s play a game instead. I think your friend Cheryl is telling stories about your friend Jeff.”
“He’s not my friend!”
“How fortunate he is, then, to have you as a guest in his home… Even so, here’s how my thinking usually runs: If the testimony doesn’t match the evidence, it’s not the evidence that’s lying. And if you have nothing to go by but the evidence you apprehend with your senses, you can tell what’s going on by comparing what you see with what you have seen in the past. So do you want to play?”
Calliope was still steaming, but Megwyn said, “Try it. It might be fun.”
I didn’t wait for explicit consent, I just forged ahead. “Imagine you’re a hostage, long-term, like a prisoner of war. How do you stand, when you’re standing upright? Do you stand up tall and proud, or are you slumped over, folded in on yourself? Do you stand near people or at an exaggerated distance? Do you make eye-contact when you are speaking? When you are confronted with a question, do you give a forthright answer at full voice, or do you mumble out a few words and fold yourself in on yourself a little tighter?”
“…That’s the way Jeff acts…” Megwyn said that.
“Too easy, right? But what’s the number one complaint you hear from married women? He’s silent. He’s distant. He’s uninvolved.”
“So it’s all Cheryl’s fault, huh?”
“No,” Meg replied, “that’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying Jeff feels like a hostage. Is that right?”
“I’m saying he is a hostage. His wife is done with him, or close to it, and he is looking down a three-barreled shotgun. All he has to do is say out loud what’s really going on inside his mind and he gets to lose everything – his kids, his house, his income – all at once.”
“You can’t know that! You haven’t even met them!” Calliope. Of course.
“And you’ve watched it all and seen nothing. Why are you down here? Why did your friend call you to come rushing down here?”
“Huh! To help her, of course.”
“To help her with what? No wounds, no damage, and the rancor runs all one way. Why did she want you here?”
To Calliope, Megwyn said, “Why did she want us down here?”
I put on a big, stentorian litigator’s voice: “In June of 2013, did the plaintiff, Cheryl Simms, inform you that she was being physically abused by the respondent, Jeff Simms?”
“Their last name is not Simms!”
“I do not care. That’s nowhere near the point. You are down here to manufacture evidence. She is setting you up to lie truthfully in her behalf in court, if things get that far.”
“Lie truthfully…?” Calliope again.
“To deceive – to lead another person into error – by means of technically factual statements. She did call. She did say he is beating her. You did come down here. All of those are factually true statements in defense of a huge lie. When the lawyer questions you, he won’t ask the questions I asked. He gets paid to lie truthfully.”
The girls said nothing for a while. Naso had switched her affections to me, and I was happy just to be able to touch her.
Finally, Meg spoke up. “If you were Jeff, what would you do?”
I shrugged. “His game is lose, lose, lose. He cannot win in the end, not unless the guns come off the table. In his place, I think I might just go ahead and run the board, ask for exactly what I want and settle for nothing if I can’t get it. But then, that’s the way I’ve lived my whole life.”
“The guns come off the table?”
“That’s what Cheryl has to do, if she wants to make her marriage work. If she wants to know what her husband really wants, thinks and feels, she has to remove the threat of divorce. Sometime between now and Saturday night, every married mother in America should sit down and write out a little contract: ‘If I should ever unilaterally file for divorce, at that same moment I concede full custody of the children of this marriage and full ownership, use and enjoyment of our family home and all other marital assets to my husband.’ That might not hold up in court, if she reneges, but making it public would expose mom as double-dealer, wouldn’t it?
“But do you see the benefit? In the bad old days, when custody always went to dad unless he was demonstrably unfit, there was no divorce. Dad would really rather work all day than change diapers, and mom would rather change diapers than slave away at a dead-end job so she can pay another working mom to change her children’s nappies. Families stayed together because the incentives were aligned, rights balanced with responsibilities, rewards flowing by mutual consent. Now that mom has all the guns – she will get the kids, she will get the house, she will get half of dad’s after-tax income for the next twenty years – the incentives are hugely misaligned. She has no reason to negotiate in good faith with him, and he has no ability, practically speaking, to bargain at all.”
Megwyn’s mouth was agape. “Every married couple I know is like that…”
“Easy to understand why. Sunday morning, a whole lot of lucky guys are going to get to have a breakfast of hand-mangled orange juice and eggshell-enriched pancakes. But every one of those guys knows that this could be his last Father’s Day at home, his last chance to see his kids before they get sideswiped for life by the family court system, his last chance to make believe that he and his wife are building something lasting, that he’s not just swimming against a relentless current that will carry him, eventually, inexorably, over the falls. ‘Is this my last Father’s Day? Is this my last Thanksgiving? Is this my last Christmas?’ Someday it all ends, and he knows it.”
Calliope dabbed at a little tear in her eye. Was it an authentic response or just a pose for effect? You decide.
“And those guys are the lucky ones. All day Sunday the divorced dads will never be more than five paces away from the phone, waiting for the call that will never come. And they at least still have an imaginary connection to their kids. For a lot of the divorced dads of grown-up children, there’s nothing left at all, just old photographs no one ever looks at and names no one quite remembers…”
Both girls were a little teary, and that’s good.
“So, ladies, what inference can you draw from these events, which you’ve been lucky enough to witness?”
Calliope kind of half-glared at me with her squinty eyes, but Megwyn said, “…Cheryl is a liar…”
“And that epiphany is not news, is it?”
“No… She always lied for us. She was a few years older, and she could always get us out of trouble, lying to our moms, lying to the cops…”
“She lied for you then. She’s lying to you now. When do you suppose she will find it urgently necessary to lie about you, behind your back?”
“She would never do that!” Guess who said that? The triumph of hope over experience? The spiteful reliance on testimony over evidence? Or just the moral counterfeiter’s code of ethics – you back my lie and I’ll back yours – as a futile defense against the always-damning facts?
“God, they’re so messed up… What can we do to help them?” Meg is a good-hearted kid, she always has been.
“Tell them long stories about other people’s nightmares and hope they catch a clue.” I grinned so she would know I was teasing her.
“I don’t think she’d sign that contract, not the way she is now.”
“Doesn’t matter, not now. There’s no point in making a promise until you’re the kind of person who can keep one. What Cheryl needs to do is stop her lying, every bit of it.” I made a point of looking right at Calliope as I was saying these words, and she made a very studied point of looking away from me. “Not just lying to get things she hasn’t earned, but lying to manipulate people or to color what they see or to hide from them things they should see or just to make herself look better in their eyes. If she were to go for a year and a day without deceiving anyone, without even letting anyone misunderstand her in error, her life would change forever. I don’t know enough about her marriage to know if she can still save it, but she can save herself from going through the same disaster with the next fool and the next one after that.”
I shrugged. “There’s nothing you can say to him that will make any difference. He will pretend to listen to you, but he won’t follow through on anything. He won’t do anything except sink further and further into himself. He’ll speak less and less, engage with the world less and less, and he will either sleep or drink more and more. If Cheryl files for divorce, you might see some fight, but probably not before. For now, he’s a whipped dog on a short chain.”
Calliope was busy pretending she wasn’t hearing any of this, but Megwyn looked glum.
I said, “It sucks, doesn’t it, to know how to fix something and not be able to do it?”
She smiled weakly.
“But that’s the benefit of listening to stories about other people’s nightmares: You learn how to do better yourself. If you’re honest in everything you do, and if you hold everyone you deal with accountable to his word, then none of this shit will happen to you. Marriage is hard enough, without trying to figure out what’s the truth and what’s a lie.”
“So how’s your marriage, Uncle Willie?”
“Now that’s a grown-up question. We’re good, really good. We like each other enough that we were able to take the time to get past the things we didn’t like. That wasn’t easy, but about four years ago it all started to click, and we’ve been on a love jag since then, like an endless honeymoon. Adora wanted to come with us to see you, but she’s got a horse foaling in Rio Verde today. She’s going to give Naso the last kiss in a dog park in Sun City, if you want to come down for it.”
Meg’s eyes were still a little wet. She said, “I’d like that.”
They were parked on the street – evidence enough that Tempe is no big city – and Naso and I walked them to Megwyn’s car, a beat up old Ford Tempo, gun-metal gray where it’s not primer pink. Calliope had nothing for me but glares, but I don’t have any way of caring about that; I can only see people who are brave enough to admit they exist.
I took Meg’s dainty little hands in mine and said, “Call your dad Sunday.”
“You were more father to me than he was.”
“You raised yourself, kid, and you did a good job of it. But your father always wanted what’s best for you, even if he couldn’t always come through. And he never did you dirt, through everything. So pick up the phone and let him know how you’re doing.”
She said nothing to that, just hugged me hard around the middle. She gave Naso a loving, ear-ruffling kiss, and then the two girls drove away.
Someday my little Megwyn will be married herself, and she will have the cutest little kids for me to come over and torment. And her husband will never act like poor Jeff, because she will know enough not to hold him hostage.
So how about you, mom? If you’ve got a marriage like Cheryl’s, and you’d like to find out what an equal partnership looks like instead, how about you write a loving little inscription in that ‘For My Wonderful Husband’ Father’s Day card?
If I should ever unilaterally file for divorce, at that same moment I concede full custody of the children of this marriage and full ownership, use and enjoyment of our family home and all other marital assets to my husband.
And if you won’t take your guns off the table for the father of your children, the man you swore to the world that you love before all others? Well, that says everything, doesn’t it?
Happy Father’s Day…
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Volume One of The Naso Diaries