Authors: Andre Dubus
Adultery And Other Choices
Nine Short Stories and a Novella
Adultery & Other Choices
To my mother
& in memory of my father
Unless a man has something stronger, something superior to all outside influences, he only needs to catch a bad cold to lose his balance entirely, to take every bird for a fowl of ill omen, and to hear the baying of the hounds in every noise, while his pessimism or his optimism, together with all his thoughts, great and small, are significant solely as symptoms and in no other way
âAnton Chekhov, âA Dull Story'
was over, and Paul Clement lay in bed in his room and wished for Marshall, his one wish in all the world right now (and he was a boy with many wishes; âIf wishes were horses beggars would ride,' his mother said when people wished). But Marshall was in Baton Rouge; he had not seen her since the Clements moved from there to Lafayette after the second grade. Maybe he would never see her again. But he would. When he was old enough to drive a car, he would go to Baton Rouge and surprise her. She would squeal and hug him. He saw her, sixteen years old, running down her front steps and sidewalk to meet him; she had breasts and used lipstick and she wore a white dress. Paul knew that now, at ten, he was good-lookingâhis face was his only pride, it was why Marshall had been his girlâand when he was sixteen he would be even more handsome and bigger and stronger, too, because he had been praying every night and at mass for God to make him an athlete.
He met Marshall in the second grade, a brown-eyed tomboy; she hated dresses, she got dirty when she played, and she brought two cap pistols and a dump truck to the scrap-iron pile at school. (âWe sold the Japs our scrap iron, and now they're using it against us,' his father said.) Once at recess she drove away with rocks fat Warren, who was kicking dust at Paul. There was a girl named Penny, with long black hair; she sat behind him in class and handed him pictures she drew (he remembered one of her father lying in bed with a broken leg, the leg suspended and weights hanging from it). Penny was prettier than Marshall, but she sometimes irritated him because she always wanted to hold his hand while they waited in line to go into school, and when there was a movie at school she held him captive, pulling him down the auditorium aisle and into a seat beside her, and during the movie her head was warm on his shoulder, her long hair tickling his throat and damp where it pressed his cheek. So he loved Marshall more. His sisters, Amy and Barbara, and his mother knew about Marshall, but his father did not. When Paul told his mother, she said âAren't you going to tell Daddy you have a girl friend?'
âYou should talk more with Daddy. He loves y'all very much, but he doesn't know how to talk to children.'
His mother said she would keep his secret. One warm afternoon after school he was to go to a birthday party at a girl's house. His mother asked if Marshall would be there, and he said yes. She smiled and combed his hair with her fingers. âNow don't you kiss her,' she said, in her tease voice.
At the party, they played hide-and-seek, and he and Marshall sat on a running board in the garage; the boy who was It passed by without looking in. The lawn and garage were quiet now; the game had passed them, and Marshall said, âKiss me.'
âPlease.' She had olive skin, her brown eyes were large, and a front tooth was missing.
âIf you close your eyes,' he said. She did, and he kissed her lips and tasted the line of sweat above her mouth.
After hide-and-seek, Marshall and Paul got on the swing hanging from an oak. Marshall wanted him to sit; she stood facing him, her feet squeezed between his hips and the ropes, her skirt moving against his face as she pumped them higher and higher till they swung up level with the branch where the ropes were tied, and she said, âI'd like to go
around, over the branch.' Paul hoped she wouldn't try.
When he got home his mother asked if he kissed Marshall and he said yes. She smiled and hugged him.
Here in Lafayette he did not have a girl. He did not even know a girl his age, because he didn't go to a public school now; he went to Cathedral, a boys' school taught by Christian Brothers. At the school in Baton Rouge there had been recess, but no one told you what to play and usually he had been with Penny or Marshall, mostly Marshall. But at Cathedral there was physical education for an hour every day, and it was like being in Baton Rouge when his father still played with them, throwing a tennis ball in the back yard. If Barbara or Amy threw to Paul he sometimes caught it and sometimes did not, but when his father threw it or even if his father was just watching, his muscles stiffened and his belly fluttered and he always missed. At Cathedral it was like that, like being watched by his father.
His father had not played golf in Baton Rouge, or for the first two years in Lafayette; then a priest named Father O'Gorman started coming over and eating supper with them. In summer before supper the men drank beer on the screen porch and listened to the six-o'clock news. Father O'Gorman was a bulky man who always smelled like cigars; he liked to tousle Paul's hair. He told Paul's mother not to worry that her husband was an Episcopalian and didn't go to church. âAny man who kneels down and says his prayers every night the way your husband does is a good man.' That is what Father O'Gorman told her; she told it to Paul, who had not worried about his father going to hell until the day his mother said the priest said he would not.
Father O'Gorman got Paul's father interested in golf. Soon he had clubs and a bag and shoes, and was taking lessons, playing every Saturday and Sunday, and practicing two or three times a week after work and sometimes on Saturday mornings. One night at supper Paul's mother said to Father O'Gorman, âIf I run off with another man it'll be your fault, Father.' She was smiling the way she did when she didn't see anything funny. âMy husband and I used to be together every weekend, now I'm all by myself.'
Paul had not liked those weekends very much. On many Sundays they had gone to New Iberia to visit his mother's family, the Kelleys, who had once had money and lived in a big brick house with Negro women working inside and Negro men working in a yard as big as a school ground, but later all the money was gone and the house, too, and the married aunts and uncles lived like the Clements in small white houses on quiet streets. Those drives to New Iberia were quiet; once there, though, his parents had drinks, and on the way home there was talking.
âI'm home every night,' his father said. âShe knows that.'
âWell, sure you're home, when it's too dark to see the ball, and all your cronies and Betsy Robichaux have gone home, so there's nobody to drink your old beer with.' She was smiling at Paul's father, and winking at Father O'Gorman.
Paul's father practiced on a school ground near their house, and he wanted Paul to shag balls for him. The pay was fifty cents, and it was an easy job to stand daydreaming with a canvas bag in his hand and watch his father's small faceless figure, the quick pencil-small flash of swinging golf club, and then spot the ball in the air and stay clear of it till it struck the ground. Easy enough, and he liked earning the money. But he did not like to shag balls, for it wasn't simply a job like raking leaves. He was supposed to like picking up balls that his father hit; afterward, in the car, he was supposed to be interested while his father explained the different irons and woods, and told why sometimes he sliced and sometimes hooked. And he was supposed to want to caddie, to spend all Sunday afternoon following his father around the golf course. âMaybe you'll want to caddie one of these Sundays,' his father said as they drove home from the school ground. âI know you can't miss the Saturday picture show, but maybe Sundaysâkeeps the money in the family that way.' Paul sat stiffly, looking through the windshield, smelling the leather golf bag and his father's sweat. âMaybe so,' he said.
Now tonight if Marshall were here with him, and if for some reason his parents and Amy and Barbara left the house and went someplace, like visiting in New Iberia, he and Marshall would go to the kitchen and he would make peanut-butter and blackberry-preserve sandwiches. They would take them with glasses of cold milk to the living room, where the large lazy-sounding oscillating floor fan moved the curtain at one end of its arc, then rustled the Sunday paper on the couch as it swept back. He would sit beside her on the couch, and when they finished the sandwiches he would rest his head in her lap and look up at her bright eyes and tell her about today, how at Sunday dinner his father had said, âWant to come out today?' and he had chewed a large bite of chocolate cake, trying to think of a reason not to, and then swallowed and said, âSure.'
After dinner, his father got an extra pack of Luckies from the bedroom, and then it was time to go. His mother walked out on the screen porch with them; the wisteria climbing the screen was blooming lavender. âKeep an eye on him in this heat,' she said to his father.
She kissed them. As they walked to the car, she called, âLook at my two handsome men. Paul, be a good influence on your father, bring him home early.'
In the car, they did not talk for six blocks or so. Then his father told him he ought to have a cap to keep the sun off his head, and Paul said he'd be O.K.
âThat mama of yours, if I bring you home with a headache she'll say the golf course is the only place the sun shines.'
Paul smiled. The rest of the way to the golf course, they did not talk. Walking to the clubhouse, Paul trailed a step or two behind his father. Caddies stood near the sidewalkâtall boys with dirty bare feet or ragged sneakers and hard brown biceps. Several of them were smoking. (âIt stunts the growth,' his mother said.) They were the kind of boys Paul always yielded the sidewalk to when he walked to the cowboy show and serial in town on Saturdays. Paul looked out at the golf course, shielding his eyes with one hand, and studied the distant greens and fairways as he and his father passed the boys and their smell of cigarette smoke and sweat and sweet hair oil.
âMr. Clement, you need a caddie?'
âNo thanks, Tujack. I got my boy.'
From under his shielding hand, Paul stared over the flat fairway at a tiny red flag, hanging limply over the heat shimmer. As he followed his father into the clubhouse, he felt their eyes on him; then, turning a corner around the showcase of clubs, he was out of their vision, and he followed his father's broad shoulders and brown hairy arms into the locker room. His father sat on a bench and put on his golf shoes.
âThat Tujack's going to be a hell of a golfer.'
âThey all play, these caddies.'
Outside, in the hot dust behind the clubhouse, his father strapped the golf bag onto a cart, and Paul pulled it behind him to the first tee. Tujack was there, a tall wiry boy of about sixteen, a golf bag slung over his shoulder. Paul shook hands with Mr. Blanchet, Mr. Voorhies, Mr. Peck. Each of them, as he shook hands, looked Paul up and down, as though to judge what sort of boy their friend had. Paul gave his father the driver and then pulled the cart away from the tee, stopping short of the three caddies, who stood under a sycamore. He was the only one using a cart, and he wished his father hadn't done that. I can carry it, he wanted to say.