UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
DON FREDD

Adult situation, brief nudity

         I’m in front of Julie’s condo by five thirty. I ring the bell then palm smack
the door. She’s still in her robe.

         “What’s up, I thought we had to be at Dr. Grossman’s by seven?”

         “Don’t get your underwear in a knot. Everything is under control. It will
take me a minute to slip on my outfit. I want to have sex before we go. I’m
wound too tight, and Zoloft gives me diarrhea. Besides, I know you’ll want to do
it when we get home, and I probably won’t be in the mood. Great jacket by the
way, very collegiate.”

         Julie and I were married for three years, but divorced two years ago. If
our relationship were confined solely to the bedroom, we would still be together
but her career, my PhD work and lack of personal responsibility on both sides
entered the fray. We are still involved because we can’t find anyone else to put
up with our self-centered natures. Last month she was kind enough to attend my
cousin Wendell’s wedding in Milwaukee. Tonight’s mid-week soiree (causing me
to miss a new episode of Lost) is my payback as she is in line for a big job offer.
The stage is a seven to nine o’clock meet and greet with an office of
psychologists and social workers. She wants to do their marketing and public
relations; eighty thousand big ones hang in the balance. This would replace the
$8.50 per hour office temp job she has now.

         The field has been narrowed to two candidates, hence the reception at Dr.
Milton Grossman’s house, the venerable head of the practice. It’s a showcase to
see how Julie interacts with all the staff, displays her social skills and stable
personal life (me). Obviously our divorce has not come up during the interviews.
I was asked to dress professionally, hence an emergency trip to the Men’s
Wearhouse where Julie and the kindly salesmen bickered over each selection.
My sports jacket, coordinating shirt and tie plus matching slacks set me back
three hundred, but Julie feels I’ll be the star of the show.

***

         After our expedited sex romp, Julie takes a quick shower while I sweat
making it to Belmont by seven. Her laissez-faire attitude towards deadlines was
part of the reason why it was difficult to live with her, but we are on the road by
six-thirty so I don’t have to drive like a maniac. I take the side streets rather than
the commuter backlog of Route 16 because it will save us a few minutes. She
concedes that showing up on time will be a point in her favor. She’s picked out a
bottle of chardonnay which the Carlins’ package store manager said was
guaranteed to impress as a cutting edge, “in” wine. My duties are laid out. I am
to compliment her personality and professional abilities to every one I meet. We
will work the room as a team. Tonight I will be her marketing and PR person.
Overlook no one, not even the bartender or caterer. Wives and office staff will be
there, and they all have a vote in the final say.

         When we get to the house she gives me a passionate kiss and thanks me
in advance for putting up with her this hectic week. Mrs. Grossman, her straight
hair pinned back with metal clips and a face as taut as an Easter Island idol,
answers the door with a nod. Their black lab offers us a warmer greeting. Julie
goes overboard on the pet appreciation angle and remarks in a sotto voce tone
to a sullen Mrs. G. that we don’t have a dog because I don’t want one. This is
true (asthma) and another reason of several which eventually led to our splitting.
Despite our timely arrival, Julie whispers that her competition has arrived
early and is seated on the couch reading tarot cards to a gaggle of women. Mrs.
G. places our thirty dollar wine on the sideboard with nary a comment. Julie,
undaunted at the slight, forges ahead with me in tow to take on the biggest group
of bearded, bespectacled males she can find.

         I’m introduced as her husband. I shake the proffered hands, trying to
remember first names as best I can. There is small talk about our getting here
from Chelmsford, construction delays in Eastern Massachusetts, and other routes
I could have taken. Julie admits she’s clueless with directions, squeezes my
hand and looks up adoringly while referencing me as the Magellan in her life for
the last five years.

         I’m asked what I do for a living. Julie seizes the moment to announce to
the world that I’m a college professor. This is a slight exaggeration. I’m only a
part time adjunct (visiting lecturer--call us what you will) at Boston University’s
Metropolitan College (night school by any other name) and am lucky to break the
fifteen thousand salary mark each year. To prove I’m not a complete dolt, I add
that Military History is my specialty. Two of the shrinks, Ed somebody and Karl
Shapiro say they minored in history way back when. Julie, sensing that I’m
safely out of the conversational harbor and ready for the open sea, leaves the
group to begin her own voyage while I reveal that I’m working on a book about
Lord Nelson’s exploits in the West Indies.

         I hold my own rather well, offhandedly dropping the news that Julie and I
are addicted to watching the Sunday mid-morning talk shows. “There’s nothing
nicer for us than a lazy brunch, browsing through a mound of Sunday papers and
then curling up on the couch to watch George Stephanopoulos put a Bush
appointee on the hot seat.” All of this is total bull. Julie never gets up before
noon on the weekends, and it’s a crapshoot whether she even knows who the
current vice president is. Wishful thinking on my part, I suppose.

         Having inflated Julie’s intelligence, I subtly carpet bomb them with her
domestic side: Asian cooking, quilting, and diabetes charity work--for the next ten
minutes before my audience decides to break formation and mingle. I have a
solitary minute to better recon the landscape. Tanya Winooski, Julie’s
competition, is still on the couch although her audience has disappeared. From
fifteen feet away she is a contrast of colors. Her skin is arctic white, a none too
subtle backdrop for large, fire engine red, hoop earrings and a slash of scarlet
lipstick. She’s wearing a black sleeveless top that most women have for cocktail
parties and New Year’s Eve. Her thin, folded arms stand out from her blouse like
the crossbones on a pirate flag. The short black hair has a flat, oriental texture.
Big brown eyes look up and out from under jagged bangs. She bends forward to
sweep up the spent fortune telling cards from a glass coffee table and vestiges of
a thong slides up from the short skirt waist band and fishnet stockings. I detect
the top of a rose blossom on her tailbone, the tattooed vines trailing down out of
public view. She beckons.

         “I don’t think I’ve seen you at any of the interviews. Are you the new ex-
Peace Corps social worker everyone’s talking about?”

         I stand over her. Her boat neck top sags forward to reveal all but nipples,
the left breast tattooed, perhaps a red heart or a fish (dolphin?) of sorts.
“Actually I’m here with my wife, Julie Endstrum. I’m Mark.”

         As she processes this information, she holds up a hand like a puppy
offering up its paw. “Then I guess you’d distrust anything my cards might say
about the future.”

         “I really don’t put too much credence in fortune tellers. I’m playing the
supportive husband role tonight.”

         As I sit beside her, she pats my leg in a gesture of confidence. “To tell
you the truth, the cards were my boyfriend’s stupid idea; something to break the
ice.” She nods towards the buffet table. “The one in dark yellow.”

         There is no mistaking who he is. Two corduroyed-clad psychologists play
interested bookends to a short, chunky black man in a Gulden’s brown mustard
suit with wide lapels, possibly used by an extra in a Spike Lee film about the
Harlem Renaissance. His head is fully shaved, but he sports a full beard tied
randomly with different colored rubber bands.

         “Quentin’s a musician, jazz” she adds noting my stare. “They might have a
CD out in the next year or two.”

         I try to look impressed. Every singer or band member I’ve ever met
always has a CD in the works or someone big in New York that wants to sign
them up.

         “Q thinks I’d be good at this job even though it’s mainstream. You know,
‘working for the man’ as he refers to it. I’ve done a ton of radio station
promotions. Right now I freelance for publishing houses whose writers come to
Boston on book tours. There’s grunt work like picking them up at the airport and
lobster salad lunches at Top of the Hub, but I’ve met lots of interesting people.
Do you know Alice Hoffman or Sara Paretsky?”

         I pat her knee in return. “No need to impress me. I’m pretty low on the
totem pole. I’m a part time history teacher so I don’t do much fiction, but I have
heard of Hoffman.”

         “God, I’m so wired. I threw up twice today, once in the car coming over.
I’m sure your wife is excellent. I didn’t mean to go on and on about me.
Someone said she went to a good college.”

         “Brown, that’s where we met; then on to RISD.”

         “RISD?”

         “Rhode Island School of Design.”

         “Oh.” The fight had gone out of her. Julie’s superior educational back-
ground, the Goth style outfit Tanya chose this evening, Q’s gangster rap suit-
all these factors added up to a bottom line that she now recognized as paling in
comparison to her arch rival. We both looked over at Julie who was the center of
attention near the bar. Her group was sniffing and tasting wine samples before
pronouncing judgment with such amorphous terms as a “bracing body, sweet
mid-section and a heady finish with a hint of barrique.” Julie was in her
element. Her face, her whole body was animated. She could be interviewing for
work as an oral surgeon and know just what to say. They were putty in her
hands and I knew why, despite the cargo plane of excess baggage, I still loved
her.

         My reverie was broken. “Could you do me a favor?”

         She was standing up, a tiny bird seeking shelter from hurricane Julie.

         “Q is busy and hates it when I cramp his style at parties. He didn’t want to
come. I don’t know how long we’re going to be together; there’s been a real
rough patch since Christmas. I won’t go into what I had to do the get him here,
but could you stand guard outside the bathroom? I used it right after I got here.
These old historic homes have charm, but there’s no lock and the door doesn’t
quite close all the way.”

         She led the way out of the living room, down a long hall past the kitchen to
the bathroom at the end. “I’ve got to pee and then take something to calm me
down.” She pulled a small plastic container from a red catch purse she was
carrying. “Don’t get the wrong idea. I haven’t done coke for months, but I can’t
get through the next few hours without some help. I just need a few minutes to sit
and mellow out with the lights off.”

         “How can I signal you?”

         “If someone comes along just tell them you’re waiting in line. Say it loud
so I can hear.”

         She stood in front of me, her hands outstretched, holding my forearms. I
walked a few feet down the hall towards the kitchen to offer her some privacy.
She was right, the door did stick and wouldn’t close all the way. A six inch band
of light slashed into the hall. There was a clunk from the seat, and I glimpsed
black fabric and white flesh preparing to nest on the toilet before chivalry got the
better of me. After a few minutes she flushed, ran the tap, evidently did her lines
and the lights went off. It was seventeen after eight by my intrepid Swiss Army
chronometer.

         All went well for the first few minutes. Like Cerberus on guard, I staved off
my history buddy who retreated without issue when I merely waved him off. It
got to be eight thirty and nary a peep from the bathroom. I was about to
investigate with a gentle knock but then she sneezed so I knew she hadn’t
overdosed. To kill time I sauntered back up to the kitchen opening and peeked
in. Julie was complimenting one of the catering company’s waitresses, who may
not have spoken English, on how great everything was. When she saw me she
fairly leapt to the archway.

         “This is fantastic. They’re all but telling me outright that I have the job.
Old man Grossman is a bit too touchy-feelie, but I don’t have much to do with
him anyway. Shapiro, who’s like a big old Teddy bear, really runs the show.
How are things with you? Did Courtney Love’s look-alike tell your fortune? Did
you see the outfit her boyfriend was wearing?”

         I began some Tanya and Q gossip in a low voice, got caught up in my own
wit, and never saw Dr. Grossman steamrolling down the hall. Before I could open
my mouth, he was pushing open the bathroom door, flipping on the light, and
blinding an unsuspecting Tanya like a prison spotlight. I grabbed Julie’s elbow
and marched her double time through the kitchen and back out the other door
into the dining room.

         “Christ, Mark, why the bum’s rush?”

         “Maybe we could start saying goodbye.”

         “It’s not nine yet and I don’t want to go until Tanya leaves. It would be
great if Grossman could let me know tonight; I could relax for the first time in two
weeks. Maybe we could break the bank on a long weekend in the White
Mountains at a nice Bed and Breakfast Inn.”

         Julie began to circulate again. It was ten minutes since Grossman’s
blitzkrieg and no mushroom-shaped cloud had formed. Perhaps a treatment
program was being discussed. That would be humane. Julie cornered Karl
Shapiro for a moment so I scurried over to the buffet to see if there were any
tidbits left. Caught up in the evening’s charade I had yet to eat anything. I
sampled some chopped chicken liver which I’d heard someone rave about but
quickly decided it was an acquired taste. I took two small sandwiches which
might have been tuna salad and ambled over to the bar for a diet cola. I chatted
up the bartender who said he was a graduate student in one of Grossman’s
seminars at Brandeis. A portly woman in an overly tight, rust colored pants suit
and a keen desire for a mai tai interrupted us. I turned to the art work on the
wall--amateurish, almost paint by numbers watercolors of various seasons in
New England. I thought they might have been done by patients, part of an
occupational therapy program. I looked at the signature--Estelle Grossman.
Well, we all can’t spend eight years researching a book on Admiral Nelson.

         I chomped the last bite of my tasteless finger sandwich, had the bartender
break away from his Mixology Guide to freshen my Coke and glanced at my
watch again. Jesus, it was almost nine and there was no sign of Tanya. Maybe
she’d done a runner; but then I saw Q using intricate hand movements to explain
something to a very amused Julie. I scanned the room to their left just in time to
see Grossman slip quietly from the hallway into the living room and head towards
the bar and me.

         He ordered bourbon straight up and stared at the painting-dotted wall
behind the bar.

         “Your wife has some interesting paintings here, Dr. Grossman. I’ve
always admired people who have artistic talent.”

         “She’s been taking lessons for twenty years.” He downed his Jim Beam
quickly then motioned his student bartender for a refill. “I used to put our kids’
pictures up on the fridge, now I put hers on the living room wall for the world to
see.”

         He turned to me. “I’m bad with names, especially tonight.” He raised his
glass in a toast. His face was flushed, body movements a bit slow, but the shock
wave was the trace of white debris below his left nostril. I stumbled out my name
and walked away, Julie’s infectious laugh in the background.

         I found my way to the kitchen and used the sink to wash sandwich goop
off my hands. I dried off with a few paper towels and decided to get Julie.

         “That was a clever little trick you pulled back there!”

         It was Tanya blocking my retreat, eye liner a bit runny but evidently none
the worse for wear.

         I apologized profusely. “I really was on guard, in fact, I was going to see if
you were okay, but my wife came and I got distracted. I hope you’re not in
trouble.”

         “You know, I’m a good judge of people, Q notwithstanding, and I felt like
we had a connection. So what if you sneaked a look at me while I was peeing,
big deal. But then you and your Ivy League bitch plotted, not just to have the job
but to really stick it to me, probably by telling everyone there was a dope fiend on
the loose. But it didn’t work. If anyone else but Grossman had caught me, I’d be
in the Framingham Detention Center with the cops trying to sweat Q’s source out
of me. Sorry to spoil your plans but, after a few awkward moments, Milt
Grossman and I have formed an interesting relationship which will re-commence
on Monday, three weeks vacation and Blue Cross plus dental included. Now, if
you’re through with the sink, I’d like to work on getting the last vestiges of some
inadvertent stains out. Think Bill and Monica Lewinsky when you tell your
beloved Julie why she’s still unemployed.”

         Out in the foyer politically correct “good byes” and “what a wonderful time”
were being exchanged. Julie was hovering next to a distracted Grossman. I
thanked Mrs. Grossman, who may have taken her meds because she actually
smiled. Julie was informed by Shelia, the office manager, that she would hear
one way or the other by early next week. I hustled her out even as, like Lot’s
wife, she wanted one more look for an encouraging clue from those gathered on
the porch. I opened the car door for her, desperately hoping that such a
gentlemanly gesture might swing a few votes. As we pulled away I said, “It’s
pretty early. Do you want to go someplace?”

         She snuggled against me. “I think I’d like to go home, have a glass of
wine and debrief the whole experience. You can tell me what people said and I’ll
share what Dr. Weitzman told me. I’d also like it if you’d stay over tonight.”
I looked at her. “I’ll have to rearrange a few things, but I guess I can.”

         She punched my arm. “You know what I’m going to do with my first
check-buy you one of those TIVO things. When we have office “get togethers”
to attend, you won’t miss any shows.”

         I kept my eyes on the road, deciding Route 16 would be clear of traffic by
now.

         She leaned into me, gently pulled my chin towards her and kissed me.
“Are you even listening to me? You seem distant.”

         “TIVO would be great.”

         “Don’t worry, I believe in you. Some day you’re going to hit the jackpot
too. BU will take you on full time. A big time publisher will snap up Admiral
Nelson; maybe a movie deal with Russell Crowe. Christ, I’m exhausted and it’s
not even ten.” She leaned back, stretched and yawned. “Just indulge me this
weekend, okay?”

         I squeezed her thigh. “It’s the least I can do.”

D. E. Fredd has been published or will soon appear in The Transatlantic Review,
The Southern Humanities Review, Rosebud, The Armchair Aesthete, Word Riot,
Prose Toad, Tribal Soul Kitchen, WriteThis, LitVisions, Grasslands Review,
VerbSap, Bullfight, The Pedestal, 3711 Atlantic, Megaera, Double Dare, Slow
Trains, Pointed Circle, Raging Face, Cautionary Tales, Slip Tongue, Anti-Muse,
Wild Violet, Poor Mojo and SNReview. Poetry has appeared in The Paris Review,
The Paumanok Review and the Cafe Review.







© 2007 Underground Voices