Straight Man by Richard Russo


  I tell him the truth, that I was not aware of this. In fact, from the way he’s informed me, I can’t tell whether it’s true or not.

  “I do have a lot to offer when it comes to spiritual matters. The mystery of human affection, especially as it pertains to desire, is a spiritual matter, though not everyone understands this.”

  I settle deeper into my deck chair. We’re rolling now.

  “Take men like us,” he suggests. “We are, in the end, true men of faith.”

  “We are?”

  “I shit you not.”

  “Good,” I say. “Great.”

  “For instance. I believe it would not be inaccurate to say that you feel considerable affection for your wife. A lovely woman, if I may say so, well worthy of your highest regard.”

  “According to Teddy I don’t love her enough,” I tell him.

  “Aha!” Tony exclaims. “Teddy also bears the burden of human affection for the very same woman. Whose affection is greater? Yours by virtue of knowing the beloved, or his by virtue of not knowing her?”

  “We’re talking biblical knowing here?”

  “We’re talking knowledge with a capital N. We’re talking epistemology. We’re no longer talking fornication except insofar as fornication helps us to know our spiritual world. I thought that was clear. You feel affection for your wife but also, if I’m not mistaken, for other women?”

  I don’t respond right away, having concluded that this question, like most of Tony’s questions, is rhetorical. Apparently not. “What are we talking about here, love?”

  “Affection,” Tony says. “Human affection. Oh, all right, love. You’re in love with your wife.”

  I do not deny this.

  “And yet you feel affection for other women?”

  “I feel”—I search for the word—“crushes.”

  “Ah,” he sounds sad, disappointed. “This unfortunately supports the consensus view that you are a case of arrested adolescent development. But let’s not be hasty. Let’s assume that a crush is intuitive knowledge of the virtue of another human being. And that our attraction to virtue, in the final analysis, is our desire to know God.”

  “By all means,” I say, though I can think of no reason why we should assume any such thing. I recall looking down the front of Meg Quigley’s shirt this afternoon, and the undeniable attraction I felt was pretty much devoid of theological dimension.

  “But is it love? Are you in love with other women?”

  “Maybe half in love.”

  Tony squints at this, but there’s no stopping him. “You’re half in love with other women who are not your wife,” he sums up, nodding, as if this is a perfectly reasonable position. “Half is okay. Half is legitimate. There’s nothing wrong with the fiftieth percentile. No more than half is the rule. You’re sure it’s not fifty-one percent?”

  I take another sip of whiskey and track its warm glow all the way down into my belly. “Teddy thinks I only half-love my wife though. If true, that would mean I love these women equally, those who are my wife and those who are not.”

  “If true,” Tony says, noting the utmost importance of the subjunctive. “More than half is the rule for a wife,” he concedes. “I loved Judy right up there in the high ninetieth percentile.”

  Tony was one of the first of our generation of Railton professors to be divorced—what?—twenty-some years ago now. Either the year of or the year after our arrival in Railton. He’s been chasing young women so long that many people remember him as a philanderer in his marriage, which was not the case. His wife’s leaving him was the cause, not the result, of his having so much to offer other women.

  “Comfortably in the exceptional range,” he continues, clearly pleased to have found a metaphor to apply to his topic.

  “A tiny sliver on your pie chart. Right up there at the top on your graph. And for most of our marriage her affection for me was considerable. Not in the exceptional range, but well within acceptable boundaries. Seventieth percentile or thereabouts. Not bad. Satisfactory. ‘Fond’ would be a good way to describe her feelings for me. Back then, I was always trying to push her into the low eighties, which I thought was a realistic goal for her. Out of the satisfactory and into the good range. I mean, when you yourself are exceptional, you aren’t all that keen on ‘satisfactory.’

  But the more I urged her into the low eighties, affection-wise, the more she slipped in the other direction. Before long she was mired in the midsixties. Barely a passing grade. Marginal effort. I was still exceptional, mind you. Day in, day out. Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven was routine for me. In the end she finally slipped below the fifty percent you speak of, where she was less than half in love, at least with me.”

  As I suspected, Tony is just the man for me tonight. Listening to him talk, I can’t help but smile. At least I think I’m smiling. My face is doing something in the dark, I can feel it.

  “In the end her leaving was a good thing. Long term, it’s not healthy to love up there in the exceptional range when your beloved is struggling to achieve a modest showing in the seventies. You keep that up too long, and somebody goes out and buys a gun.”

  He leans over and pours more whiskey in my glass, not much, though, because I haven’t made much headway with what he gave me before.

  “How come I can drink twice as much as you even when I’m doing all the talking?”

  In truth, I’m afraid to start really drinking. Afraid I won’t be able to stop with this wonderful stuff Tony has brought. If I could be sure we’d stop when we got to the end of this one bottle, I’d race him to the bottom, but Tony has warned me that he knows a place where we can score another, and I know about twenty such places, the nearest being the kitchen cabinet, where I’ve stashed, unopened, a bottle of Irish whiskey even more expensive than the stuff we’re drinking.

  “For a long time after she left, I stayed right up there. Very little slippage, affection-wise, but I have to tell you it’s true what they say. It’s lonely at the top. And after a while, you feel a little foolish, too. You begin to consider that you have a lot to offer women, if you could just be a little less exceptional.”

  “You forget I know how this story ends,” I remind him. “I know how much you’ve offered other women. You brag about it in the locker room twice a week.”

  “And you forget Joe Namath,” he says. “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”

  The whiskey that was in my glass has mysteriously disappeared. I hold it out for some more.

  “But here’s the thing,” Tony adds thoughtfully. “Most of the time, since I have so much to offer women, I’m comfortably down in the lower sixties where my ex-wife is concerned, sometimes the midfifties even. Last week, in the hot tub with the local press, I’m in the low to midfifties tops, which is where I like to be, because in the fifties you got options. You can zig, you can zag. There’s the possibility of dignity. And you know my motto.”

  I smile. “Dignity first?”

  “I’ve told you this before?”

  “A lucky guess.”

  “But here’s the thing,” he says again. I can’t tell if it’s the same thing or a different thing than the one he was getting at before. “You’re cruising along in the midfifties, you’re in the hot tub with the local press, which has terrific knockers, and suddenly, for no reason that makes any sense, you’re back in the exceptional range, affection-wise, for a woman you haven’t even seen in over a decade and who’s probably gotten sloppy fat, for all you know, this woman you meant to spend the rest of your life with—you even said so, at some point, in front of witnesses—and what you’d like to know is, Why now? I mean, you’re in the middle of an important interview here, and you don’t want to be so exceptional anymore. You like it down in the fifties, the sixties, modestly above average, nothing to be ashamed of.”

  “So what are you advising here?”

  He looks at me like I’m stupid but fills our glasses again. “Who said anything about advice? Pay attenti
on. The subject is the mystery of human affection. I’m talking statistics. I’m talking fine calibrations of the human heart, done scientifically. You, personally, I have no idea about. You said you were half in love. I’m just trying to clarify your statistical thinking. I don’t even know who you’re half in love with.”

  “Would that matter? Statistically?”

  “No,” he admits. “But I’m curious what kind of woman a man like you might be half in love with.”

  “You know Billy Quigley’s daughter Meg,” I hear myself say.

  “And who could blame a man like you for this?”

  “And there’s my secretary, Rachel.”

  “A fine woman for a man like you to be half in love with. I understand.”

  “And there’s Bodie Pie, over in Women’s Studies.”

  “A lesbian,” Tony remarks. “You know she’s a lesbian?”

  “That means she can’t be half in love with me, not that I can’t be half in love with her.”

  “True,” Tony concedes the logic of my distinction. “But this is where dignity comes in.”

  I glance over at him.

  “It’s the futility I object to, not the lifestyle,” he explains. “I’d say the same if you told me you were half in love with a socket wrench. I think your problem may be that you’re right at fifty percent. That’s neither fish nor fowl. Speaking of which, have you had dinner?”

  I confess that I have not.

  “I know a little place in town that has good food. And here’s something that may interest you,” he adds, holding up the bottle, now empty, except for half a finger of murky liquid sloshing at the bottom. “If you know how to ask, they’ll serve you alcohol.”

  “We’re too drunk to drive.”

  “It’s too far to walk. Besides, there’s nothing between here and the restaurant but trees.”

  “It’s trees I’m worried about,” I tell him. “They don’t move when you hit them.”

  “Just follow me,” Tony suggests.

  “I bet they aren’t even serving. It’s going on nine o’clock.”

  “You’ve lived in Pennsylvania too long. In New York, civilized people are only now beginning to think about dinner. Only fundamentalist Christians have eaten their evening meal.”

  “They too have a lot to offer God.”

  “Nonsense. They believe God has a lot to offer them. Get your coat. Maybe we’ll run into one of the women you’re half in love with.”

  We take both cars. Our speedometers do not break the twenty-five-mile-per-hour barrier all the way to Evergreen’s, which by Railton standards is a pretty decent restaurant. There aren’t many, which accounts for why on any given night you always run into people you know. From the foyer on this given night I see June and Teddy eating dinner in the third booth. I’m surprised to see them out in public together, given the scene that took place between June and Orshee in the hallway of Modern Languages, and even more surprised to see Teddy quietly reach across the table and take June’s hand. On the other side of the room, Paul Rourke and the second Mrs. R. appear to be waiting for their check, the second Mrs. R. dangling her sandal from her big toe beneath the table. In the middle of the dining room I see Bodie Pie with a good-looking young woman.

  “Just your luck,” Tony says, too loudly. “The lesbian.”

  I have sobered up a little on the drive. Tony, I would guess, is in far worse shape than I. Now that we’re here, it’s good that we’re going to eat.

  Teddy and June spot us in the doorway, so I wave. Their heads go together, and we don’t have to be there to follow the discussion. Teddy wants to ask us to join them. June, who has no use for Tony, says absolutely not.

  “What are all these people doing eating out on a Monday night?” is what I want to know.

  “Two-for-one night,” Tony says.

  “One of our meals is free?” I say.

  “Mine,” Tony clarifies. “I paid for fifty-five dollars’ worth of clams last week.”

  “I wondered who paid for all that,” I tell him. “I’m glad it was you, since you’re the one who ate them all.”

  We get the last table in the place, though in about two minutes Rourke and the second Mrs. R. stop by our table on the way out. The second Mrs. R. is not a woman I’m even half in love with. What I can’t help wondering is how it’s possible for a woman to go through life with the same bored look on her face all the time. I wouldn’t want to be married to Paul Rourke, but I doubt boredom would be the emotion he’d inspire. “Hello, Reverend,” I say.

  “Lucky Hank,” he observes. “You must be celebrating the fact that you’ve got one more week as chair.”

  “I think I’ll have the lobster,” I tell him.

  “You should have been here ten minutes ago. Juney actually leaned across the table and kissed her husband. I’d been about ready to order dessert until I saw that.” He’s about to leave when he remembers something. “How long have you known that our chair search was going to be canceled?”

  Even drunk as I am, I recognize this trap. Rourke would like nothing better than to catch Jacob Rose in an outright lie. “Has our search been canceled?” I ask. I’m prejudiced, of course, but I think I play the innocent every bit as convincingly as my dean. Which may even be a reason to believe I’d make a good dean. Maybe it’s the influence of a fifth of fine whiskey or the proximity of my longtime enemy, but the idea of becoming his dean has grown on me. Judas Peckerwood. I can almost see the nameplate on the door.

  “I should know better than to ask,” Rourke says. “Twenty years I’ve known you and Jacob, and you’ve never told the truth yet. Enjoy your lobster.”

  “You drive carefully,” I tell the second Mrs. R. Her husband flinches but does not turn around.

  “That used to be one wild woman,” Tony observes when they’re gone.

  “Don’t tell me you had a lot to offer her too,” I sigh.

  He doesn’t look up from his menu. “You think all my knowledge is carnal, but it’s not.”

  In the middle of the room the young woman with Bodie Pie gets up to go to the women’s. She’s tall and athletic-looking, vaguely familiar. A coach of one of the women’s teams perhaps. Something about the expression on Bodie’s face suggests to me that this dinner they’re having is good-bye. Bodie takes out her cigarettes, starts to light one, then remembers she’s in nonsmoking and puts them away again. When I catch her eye, I give her the kind of loopy smile that’s supposed to convey understanding and sympathy but that probably conveys only how drunk I am. The look I get back suggests that she’s confusing me with her ex-husband, the man who convinced her to be a lesbian.

  When the waiter comes, I order a large cut of prime rib, which causes my companion to look at me with disgust. “You wouldn’t.”

  “What do you mean I wouldn’t?”

  “Do you know how bad that is for you?” Since his heart bypass, Tony is death on red meat. “Do you know how many pounds of undigested animal fat the average American carries around in his body?”

  Given the amount of sour mash Tony has consumed tonight, I’m in no mood to listen. When I see that the waiter has hesitated before writing down my order, I repeat it. “Rare,” I add.

  Tony orders the brook trout.

  When the waiter leaves us, and when June Barnes gets up to go to the women’s room, Teddy comes over, his face flushed with excitement, and pulls up a chair. “What’d Rourke want?” he asks eagerly. “He broke a lamp in his office after the meeting. Threw it against the wall.”

  “He was just wondering if I thought you’d stand for chair again,” I tell him. “He didn’t want to nominate you unless he was sure you’d accept.”

  Teddy knows better than to entertain this possibility. Paul Rourke was the power behind his ouster from the chair I now temporarily occupy. Still, I can see the hope in his eyes. In the ever-changing world of departmental politics, it’s just possible that things have changed enough for Teddy to become acceptable to Rourke. Perhaps my even mor
e abusive reign has made his own look democratic by comparison. Maybe his tenure as chair looks like the good old days now. Maybe, compared with me, he looks sane. Not once during his six years as chair did he ever threaten to kill ducks.

  You don’t have to be Teddy to know these thoughts are flickering through his mind, rendered plausible, as even the most ridiculous scenarios are, by desire. It’s a crazy world, he’s telling himself. If Jacob Rose and Gracie DuBois can marry in it, if his wife of twenty-some years can have a fling with a man whose academic specialty is sitcoms, is there really any reason to believe he shouldn’t be chair again? Well, yes, but it takes Teddy far too long to realize it.

  “You’re joking, right?” he finally says, and his attempt to disguise his disappointment stirs in me a powerful desire to be cruel to this man who has been my friend for a long time. As I’ve said before, I share with my dog many deep thoughts and feelings, and at this moment I understand completely his desire last week to groin Teddy, and I’m no more capable of resisting the temptation than he was.

  “Don’t be pathetic, Teddy,” I advise.

  I can see from his expression how badly I’ve hurt his feelings. This low blow is indeed Occam-like, a pointed snout to the gonads, and it’s either Teddy’s fundamental generosity of spirit or our long friendship that drives him to find an excuse for my boorish behavior. “Boy, you’re really drunk,” he says.

  “Immaterial, but true,” I admit.

  He shrugs. “I just came over to congratulate you—”

  “Like hell,” I tell him, unmoved by the beginnings of tears forming in Teddy’s eyes. He looks like he did the night he confessed his love for my wife, the night he told me I didn’t love her enough, back when we were both young men. “You came over to gossip.”

  I’m half-expecting a reprimand from Tony, but my companion has unaccountably lapsed into an almost comatose silence. When the waiter arrives with our salads, I look over at him and am surprised to discover on his face an expression like menace. He stabs, off center, the cherry tomato in the middle of his salad with such violence that it jumps off the plate and skitters across the table. Since it’s closest to Teddy, he reaches out to pick the tomato up and return it to its owner, only to discover that Tony has risen from his seat and lunged after it with a second thrust of his fork, skewering it this time with all three tines, pinning it to the tablecloth, where it oozes juice and seeds. He’s missed Teddy’s fingers so narrowly that Teddy, startled, jumps back. Bodie Pie is watching all this, and so is half the restaurant. Like the drunks we are, at least tonight, we’ve been talking too loud, and of course no sound travels in a restaurant quite as clearly as anger.

 
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