“Can I join you, Joe?” Carl Maddox stood holding a glass of water (no ice), a plain Beutter Bagel, and a small tub of cream cheese.
“Sure.” I looked at my Apple Watch. It was 7:07. “Running a little late?” Teachers reported at 7:30.
Carl plopped into the chair wearing a Goldwater H. S. Football Staff sweatshirt and a pair of Wrangler khakis. “A three-car pile up on Locust Street.”
My radar pinged. “Locust?”
Carl spread cream cheese across the bagel slices. “Quickest route from home.”
“You live on Pine Grove.”
“Used to.” He put down the plastic knife. “Winnie got fed up with my sexism, my anger, and my football coaching regimen.” He cleared his throat. “I’m paraphrasing….”
When the district hired Carl to coach the Goldwater H. S. War Birds twenty-two years ago, Winifred Kortz was the team’s trainer. They shared common interests and similar builds: short, squat, and muscular, with thick necks and powerful legs. They began staying late in the training room after the team went home.
After Carl won the first of his four State Championships, they married. Winnie quit teaching to raise their sons. The couple celebrated their nineteenth wedding anniversary with a trip to the Dallas Cowboys Training Camp in Oxnard.
“I’m renting an efficiency apartment by the week,” he explained.
“What happened?” Carl and I taught together in the English Department, but we’d never been close.
“I put my fist through the window in the coaches’ office door after my All-State defensive lineman pulled a hamstring in the showers. Winnie drove me to the ER, watched them stitch up my hand, and left me at the Super 8. She said I could get my clothes Saturday morning. She’d called a locksmith.”
“I didn’t know.”
“You’ve been rather preoccupied….”
“Yes.” Last May I got home from school and found the kids and our Winnebago missing. My wife’s note explained that she’d signed up to be a campground host in California and the kids wanted to come along. I need space, she wrote. Janet promised to touch base once they got settled.
I glanced at my watch again. “I should….”
Carl motioned for me to stay. “There’s a two-hour delayed start because of the fog. You were supposed to get a call.” He settled back in his chair.
“I forgot to charge my phone.”
Both Carl and I taught literature classes, but I favored contemporary literature: Nadine Gordimer, Alice Walker, Doris Lessing. Carl was fond of dead white guys: John Steinbeck, James Joyce, Ernest Hemmingway. Carl was ex-Army, a REMF in the First Gulf War, and President Trump’s biggest fan. I posted a selfie with Elizabeth Warren on my Facebook page.
“Winnie’s cut me off,” he said deliberately, “so I’ve entered the dating pool.”
I was skeptical of his prospects. Carl looked like a tackling dummy with his scarred face and broken nose from playing Division I football. “But you’re still married.”
Carl snorted. “Everyone’s single in a chat room.”
Two more English teachers appeared at my table. “I saw your Jeep out front,” Rachel Groves told Carl in an accusatory tone. “Buy us a couple coffees….”
“Actually I’d prefer green tea,” Susan Bennett interjected. “And a bear claw.”
“Tea and a bear claw for Susan,” Rachel confirmed. “Coffee and a pecan roll for me.” She pulled Carl from his chair. “You need anything, Joe?” she asked, glancing my way. She didn’t wait for an answer.
I watched Rachel drag Carl to the back of the long line at the front counter.
“They got drunk together last night,” Susan whispered. “This morning she couldn’t find her keys.”
“But she’s married….”
“So’s Carl.” Susan sat down reluctantly. We had philosophical differences concerning the role of grammar instruction in our composition classes. “Last night was Rachel’s wedding anniversary. She hired a sitter. After school her husband called from Detroit, said he wouldn’t be home until the weekend.”
“I thought Gary wasn’t traveling any more.”
“He’s got a new boss.” Susan paused dramatically. “Female.” Another pause. “They’ve been traveling a lot.” One more pause. ‘Together.”
“Where does Carl come in?”
“Rachel informed Gary she wasn’t going to waste a babysitter.”
“So she called Carl?”
“She knew about Winnie. She called him at football practice and said he could buy her dinner.” Susan leaned across the table. “He suggested the Taco Bar at The Mad Hatter.” I tried to picture the prim and proper Mrs. Groves at The Hatter. “Rachel had reservations at Casa Enrique.” I whistled softly. Upscale. Amazing food. Expensive. “She told him to wear a tie.”
Susan pulled out her iPhone and found the selfie Rachel had posted on FaceBook. Carl was in a suit and tie with black Nikes. Rachel was in a simple black dress with pearls and a tasteful amount of cleavage.
I whistled softly. “Very nice.” Susan nodded her head slowly. “I didn’t know Rachel owned a dress.” She taught in jeans, a white cotton blouse, and red Chuck Tailors, sometimes a Michigan State sweatshirt in the winter. “And…?”
“Rachel ordered a pitcher of sangria. Five pitchers later they ended up at his apartment and had—I am quoting Rachel here—‘adrenalin-fueled angry sex.’”
“No foreplay, no kissing, just unrestrained….”
“Her husband cheated on her….”
“Winnie cut Carl off….”
“‘Best sex ever,’ Rachel told me.” I glanced at my two colleagues now arguing in the bagel line. “She went to the bathroom to freshen up. When she returned to the living room wearing only her stiletto heels, Carl was snoring on the couch.”
I tried to imagine Rachel naked in heels. Actually, Susan had better legs.
“Rachel drove home, paid off the babysitter, then sent a lewd and angry text to her husband and posted the dinner photo on Facebook.”
Rachel and Carl’s argument escalated at the counter. People were backing away. Someone called the manager.
“I can’t blame them,” Susan intoned. “They were sexually frustrated, passionate people, who connected on a primitive level.”
“They needed physical contact,” I suggested. “The sense of being connected.”
“We all need that….”
A lengthy silence followed. “So, Susan, how are your girls?” I asked.
“They’re fine, not that you really care.”
“Well, that’s a little harsh….”
“What are their names?” She waited. “You can list them in order of birth or alphabetically….”
“Well, there’s Beverly….”
“Christa and Gwen.” She seemed especially smug about the fact she knew all her daughters’ names. It seemed to me a minimum for a parent. “You got a score of 33%. That’s a failing grade.”
“If I knew there would be a quiz, I’d have studied.”
“Everything is a joke to you, isn’t it, Joe?”
Susan’s teeth were clenched. Her face was flushed. I broke eye contact. My eyes drifted down to the cream-colored blouse that hid her small, asymmetrical, breasts. When she crossed her arms to cover them, my eyes drifted further south, stopping at the hem of her short straight skirt and the expanse of leg and thigh below that.
“My legs are my best feature,” she said smugly.
“But you’ve got no ass to speak of….”
“What did you just say…?” Her back stiffened.
When Rachel returned she noted Susan’s body language and turned to me. “Do I need to separate you two?” She handed her friend a steaming mug and a giant bear claw on a plate. “Carl bought you Prince of Wales tea to thank you for driving me this morning.”
Susan pointed to the travel mug and pastry bag in Rachel’s hand. “What’s that?”
“Coffee and a pecan roll.”
“To go?” She seemed confused. “My tea is in a mug.”
“School doesn’t start for another two hours,” I interjected.
“It won’t take that long,” Carl smirked.
Rachel punched him in the arm. When he barely winced, she punched him again harder, and then a third time. She turned back to Susan. “Carl said he’d give me a ride to school, but we have to stop by his place. I forgot something last night.” She shot him a glance daring him to say anything more.
Carl grabbed the last of his bagel and gulped down the cold dregs of his coffee before Rachel drug him out the door.
Susan watched them leave with her mouth open.
“At least she remembered your order,” I suggested.
“I only drink green tea. I hate Prince of Wales.”
I stood up. “I can get you a green tea.”
“Sit down, Joe.” I sat down. Susan tore off a piece of the bear claw and began chewing methodically.
“Perhaps we should finish this conversation at school….”
“I’m not wearing panties.”
“I beg your pardon…?”
“Every morning at breakfast my husband buries himself in The Times Democrat. It’s like I don’t exist.” She tore off more bear claw. “My father was like that.”
“Don’t go there, Beiderman.” She finished the pastry and wiped her hands on a napkin. She sipped from the mug, forgetting that she hated black tea. “My husband is nothing like Daddy. Jeffrey is just preoccupied. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get his attention.”
I cleared my throat. “Janet left me five months ago and took the kids. Her note said she’d been hired as campground host in the California state park system. This was the first I’d heard of it.” Susan nodded sympathetically. “I’ve contacted every park in California and in four surrounding states. She’s charged nothing on our credit cards and placed no calls on her cell phone. In June our camper was found outside of Brownville, Texas. It had been gutted and set it on fire.”
Susan listened in apparent fascination.
“Ten days ago I got postcards from my kids. They are staying with someone they call ‘Uncle Edwardo’ on his finca outside of Guatemala City. He bought them a pony. My lawyer says traveling to Guatemala to find them would be dangerous and unwise.”
“I see.” Susan said, setting down her tea. She pushed the mug aside and rested her arms on the table. “Every Tuesday the girls take the early morning bus. Last Tuesday, after they left, I announced to my husband, ‘I’m not wearing underwear.’ He continued to read. ‘I have no bra on, no panties,’ I said by way of clarification. ‘I am wearing thigh highs, not pantyhose, and my red heels.’ ‘Show me,’ he said, without looking up from the newspaper.”
I processed the mental image. “And you had angry sex…?”
“Because you were angry at Jeffrey….”
“I was angry at everyone.”
I imagined my wife sipping rum drinks in Central America with a man in a white linen suit while my kids swam in his kidney shape pool and rode their pony. I looked at my Apple Watch. “We’ve got ninety minutes before school starts.”
“It won’t take that long.” She stood up. “We can use my husband’s bed. He made it before he left for Detroit.”
“Won’t it upset him if we mess it up?”
Susan stopped at the door. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”