“So, anyway,” Stanley asked. “Why DID you marry me?”
They were folding wash at 2 a.m., wide awake, half-watching Turner Classic Movies. It was Fritz Lang Day and the station aired Clash By Night, the director’s gloomy 1952 Odets adaptation with Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas.
“Honey, do we have to do this again?” Rachel replied with a roll of her eyes, “I mean, there were lots of reasons…. I know I never felt as comfortable with anyone… Hon, please, don’t rest my clean underwear on that chair—it’s filthy. We really gotta vacuum.”
“’Comfortable,’ is not a good answer,” Stanley said, dutifully piling panties in the lap of his cargo shorts. “What about, ‘You’re a sexual animal with an air of danger and I want to rip off your clothes.’ You know—lie, for once in your life.”
"You’re very sexy,” she said, her tone like the soothing mother of a boy picked last in gym class. “Please—can we maybe not do this? Just for a change?”
“I know, I need constant reinforcement. But it’s just—well, it’s like this movie…”
“Oh, Christ, here we go…”
“Robert Ryan’s this, you know, sexy bastard—a real shit—but it doesn’t matter because Stanwyck’s so horny she wants to do it all night with him, right there on the kitchen table, but she’s married to sweet, plodding old Paul Douglas….”
“Now, lemme guess: you’re sweet, plodding old Paul Douglas…”
“You’re nothing remotely LIKE Paul Douglas. And Robert Ryan wasn’t my type.”
“All right. Bill Holden. Or Mitchum.”
“I didn’t marry them. I married you. YOU’RE my type, but not when you constantly put yourself down—well, hate to tell ya, but it kind of kills everything.”
Dr. McCormick heard Stanley’s tale and raised her eyebrows as if to agree with his wife.
“I know, I know, she’s right, okay?” he said preemptively.
“Obviously you get something out of all this,” the therapist said, “running yourself down, especially your sexuality.”
“But what could I possibly get out of that? It’s nuts.”
Surely the answer lay in Stanley’s formative years, the ones he’d so deftly blocked out—save those parts involving a baseball. The rest he’d consigned to a Rockwellian haze, using his editor’s pencil to excise details too painful, most not horrible but happy—until shattered by loss and madness. And now that Stanley had finally entered therapy, he determined to resurrect those events of his boyhood and adolescence. Clearly he needed some inspirational prod, and as luck would have it, one came just a couple of weeks later. At work that day, with a large bloc of down time, he felt a spasm of nostalgia and began searching the Internet for anything related to his hometown. He landed on the site for the Metuchen Historical Society, one feature of which was an extensive collection of vintage photographs, indexed under headings like “Main St., 1907,” “Hook and Ladder Co., 1916,” and “Biplane Club, 1924.” One after another he clicked on them, and at first it was entertaining to see bewhiskered Edwardians on what he recognized as Tommy Cemprola’s front porch, or a Pierce-Arrow parked by the Old Methodist Church. As usual when he experienced pleasure, however, Stanley’s DNA took hold and a wave of melancholy washed over him: Almost every person in these photographs is dead, he thought. They had stood on the same sidewalks and street corners where he’d stood, soul upon soul, generation upon generation, carrying their worries, hopes and whatever else flickered through their minds the instant the shutter snapped—sick child, new hubcap, gonna rain, eggs or milk, Taft or Wilson, some girl’s eyes. Now they were dust—if that—most forgotten as if they’d never lived.
Like an I-porn wanker, Stanley click-clicked down the web site till he reached “Elementary School Faculty, 1930-31”—several rows of small oval portraits, most of women in buns and sensible collars. His eyes fixed on a plumpish young lady with dark hair, high cheekbones and serene almond eyes, who might have been Gertrude Stein’s prettier younger sister. “Kate Brewster,” read the name and Stanley’s heart did a flip: Decades after this photo Kate Brewster—greyer, still plumper and a year from retirement—would be his kindergarten teacher. One look sent him back, all the way back, to his first desperate day of school…..