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The Outside Man

 

(Excerpt)

Sly was sniffing my trouser cuffs with the force of a small vacuum cleaner.  He probably smelled Topi.


“Sweetie, will you be an angel and cut two inches off the stems and put them in the tall cut crystal vase in the kitchen for me,” Caroline said, stooping to pull Sly back into the apartment before closing the door.  “The vase is on the counter.  Don’t forget to put the powder in so they’ll keep,” she said, on her barefooted way down the hallway toward her study.  “Go mix yourself a drink.  I’m on the phone.”


I turned on the light in Caroline’s kitchen and unwrapped the roses.  I was dejected.  Who was she talking to who was so important that she couldn’t hang up and help me arrange these things?  Ralph?  It wasn’t that I couldn’t mangage it.  It was her not taking a minute to show more appreciation.  Should I have bought the tuberoses instead of roses and really bowled her over?  I fished a sharp knife out of the drawer and measured about two inches from the bottom, resisting the urge to cut two inches from the top. You said two inches, you didn’t say which end.  I sliced slanted and clean.


I sprinkled powder in the vase and filled it from the tap.  One by one I added the trimmed roses, only puncturing my thumb twice.  When I finished I carried the arrangement into the living room and set it on the glass coffee table.  I sat down on the white leather couch and stared at my creation.  Satisfied, I went over to the side table and poured myself half a tumbler of Wild Turkey, adding an inch of water.  I was in need of sedation.


I stared at the flowers, trying to decide whether they were lopsided enough to require rearranging.  I sipped more bourbon.  I listened to the murmur of Caroline’s voice from the study, heard her giggle.  Sly settled heavily against my ankle.  A brown and white shorthaired Jack Russell stared up at me with dark, limpid eyes.


“Want to bet how long she stays on that phone, Sly?”


Sly stared at me, his chin on my instep.


“How do you put up with this stuff?  I mean you have to live with it.  At least I can exit the place.”  I could see down the hall into the kitchen where Sly’s kennel cage sat, with its metal grill door, handles on each end.  When we first started dating I asked Caroline why she put Sly in that cage every night.  I told her I never put Topi in a cage.  “Cats are different,” she said.  Anyone who knows anything about dogs knows that at night they feel more secure in their kennel than loose in a big apartment.”


“Is that true, Sly?” I whispered.  “You’d rather be locked in that cage every night? Like a parakeet?”


Still staring, Sly had begun wagging the stump of his tail, shaking his body side to side.


“I don’t believe it.  I think you’d rather be wet and wild and dirty out there at night, chasing rats through ivy in the park.” I studied Sly for a minute, taking in the expectant, flashing eyes under the furry eyebrows.  I sipped my bourbon.  “You’d be hell on rats, Sly.  There’re some big ones out there.  Just stay away from maggoty squirrels.”  Caroline had told me of an incident with a maggoty squirrel.


Sly adjusted his position, settling his chin into an apparently more comfortable curve of my ankle.


“But you depend on her, don’t you?  It’s not like you have any choice.  She’s got you by the balls.  Or she did before she lopped ’em off.”


Again I was aware of Caroline’s voice carrying down the hall.  I looked at my watch—fifteen minutes. The first tendrils of anger began heating my stomach.  I took a long sip of bourbon.  Appeasing the anger impulse was easier than facing it.  Facing it meant you might have to do something about it, and that could get me into trouble.  I could have walked right out the door and back to my place.  Later I could argue that a guy can take just so much.  We would have a big fight.  But harsh reality would raise its ugly head.  She was not only the woman I was crazy about—she was a major client.


“So how do you like guys like me coming in and taking your woman away from you?” I said, surveying the room for any chance left-behind evidence of Ralph.  “I mean, she is the entirety of your social life.  She’s your universe.”


Sly wagged his stumpy tail.


“I don’t know, Sly.  She makes a steer dog out of you so you’ll be sweet and tranquil.  And what happens?  You love her more than ever.  For all I know she told the vet to hold the anesthesia and save twenty bucks.”  Sly gazed at me happily.  “Well, I don’t suppose she’d do a thing like that, would she?  She doesn’t need the money.”


The roses stood at attention, as if impatient for the main act.  We’ve done our part, they seemed to say—where’s the action?


“So why am I crazy about her, Sly?  Why does it drive me nuts if I don’t talk to her at least once a day?  Am I in love with torment?”


The dog stared up at me like a Zen master.  Wise Sly.  He knew things attainable only through primal innocence.  Or suffering.


I sipped more bourbon.  “You know quite a bit about women, don’t you?”  I looked deep into those dark eyes.  “You were one of Caroline’s boyfriends, weren’t you?  And she changed you into a dog the way Circe changed Ulysses’ sailors into swine.  That’s their game, Sly.  Women don’t want men to romp and stomp.  Unless it’s in bed, when they want.  Our job is to obey.  We’re pigs if we don’t.  And your excuse?”


The dog gazed at me in adoration.  Probably nobody had given him this much attention in months.  He wasn’t moving his head at all, perhaps thinking that if he shifted his chin or turned his head even slightly, he’d break the spell under which he now so obviously had me.


“Unlike you, I could walk out the door and find another woman.  But you know what, Sly?  She’d be just like this one.  That’s the problem.  Are the other ones out there all like this one, or do I only go for this type?”  I drained the bourbon, got up, refilled my glass, and sat down again.  I looked at my watch, took a sip, and studied Sly.


“Sly, do you have visions of traffic cops?”  Breathlessly, wisely, Sly stared back.  “What about Ralph?  Does he come around when I’m not here?”  I sighed.  “Sly, you know a lot, but you’re not talking.”


Caroline’s throaty laugh floated down the hall, punctuated with a “bye!”  Finally, I thought.  I carefully removed Sly’s chin from my instep and rose from the couch.  I had been impeccably patient.  My stomach was churning, in spite of the bourbon, as if to remind me just how patient I’d been.  I walked down the hall to her study to give her a hug and a kiss, to begin our evening over again.


There she sat at her green-felt-topped antique desk, punching in numbers on her phone.


“Hi, Lisl, this is Caroline.  I was just talking to Carrie and she wanted me to ask you if you could….”  She spotted me at the door and turned away.  “…if you could make it to the meeting Wednesday night.  She can’t go.”  Silence.  “You’re kidding.  When did he do that?  Bastard.  And Emily just sat and took it?  I think it’s time for some consciousness-raising.”  More silence.


“Caroline,” I said, now standing beside her desk and looking at my watch.  “If you’ve got a lot of calls to make, maybe I’ll just get going.”  I had somehow contrived a facial expression of mild annoyance instead of rage.  But I was having trouble—from the anger or the bourbon, or both—keeping my balance.


“Lisl, could you hold on a second?” Caroline said.  She covered the mouthpiece.  “You just got here.”


“Half an hour ago.”  I shot her a look of reproach.

“Lisl, can I call you back?  Thanks.”

She hung up and turned to look at me.  “You’re so cute when you get mad,” she said, her face flushed, her brown eyes shooting darts, “though you’re not so cute when you get jealous.”  Her smile was tight and controlled.  “You’re upset because I had lunch with Ralph today.”  Her smile broadened.  “He took me to La Grenouille.  It was lovely.”

“I’m sure it was,” I said with a molten grin.  “And did he sell you a nice canvas?”

“A beauty.”

“Naturally.”  Something told me she’d lie even if Ralph hadn’t, just to aggravate me.  “Well, we missed you at Café des Artistes.  Are you aware that Sandra Bannister could be a problem?”

“She’s been McCallister’s boss for all of forty-eight hours,” Caroline said icily,            “and she won’t be a problem.”

“Well, she’s gunning for you,” I said.  This was not how I’d wanted the evening to begin—talking business.  I didn’t want her to think I was upset for fear of losing the new Tech Week schedule.  It was delicate.  She’d handed me the account and of course I owed her.  I needed her to understand that I’d love her with or without Tech Week, but the very act of saying it might make her doubt it: he doth protest too much.  Of course we’d had fights about Ralph before.  I will not bow to your every jealous whim, she’d declared.  You can’t control me.  I had insisted I just wanted the attention lovers normally give each other.

Caroline fiddled with a crystal paperweight.  “What do you mean, she’s gunning for me?”

“She took the research we showed her and implied you screwed up when you put us on the schedule.  She said we go mainly to the client side, not the agencies she wants to reach.  She implied you should have leaned on us for deep discounts, that you weren’t taking care of them.”

Caroline’s mouth drew itself into a thin, compressed line. “I’m having lunch with Dave Goodman tomorrow.  We’ll see about Sandra Bannister.”

But I remembered how much confidence Sandra had exuded.  Hadn’t Dave Goodman signed off on her, maybe even put her there as his protégé?  “I just think it would have been helpful if you hadn’t canceled out of lunch.”

“Don’t worry.  Your ad schedule’s safe.”  Caroline gave me a knowing smile.  “Which worries you more—my having lunch with Ralph, or maybe losing Tech Week?”

“Well, I’m….” My brain short-circuited.  If I said lunch with Ralph, she’d nail me for being jealous.  If I said Tech Week, she probably wouldn’t believe me.  But if she did, I’d look like I was bedding her for the business, which wasn’t true.  Not quite.  Not initially, at least.  No, jealousy was preferable.

She saw me struggling.  “Just a joke, darling.”  Her eyes were twinkling.

“Ralph,” I blurted.

“Ralph what?”

“I was bothered more about your lunch with Ralph than about losing Tech Week,” I said, thinking she’d now accuse me of only trying to control her.

“Are you serious?”

“Well, yes.”

Her face reddened.  “So you’re confessing that you’re riddled with jealousy and possessiveness?  That you couldn’t think of anything better to do at an important lunch than wonder what Ralph and I were up to across town?”

“At least you admit you skipped an important lunch.”  I smiled to soften the indictment.  “Actually, I only partially meant I was jealous.”

“Partially meant or partially jealous?”

“Listen,” I said, “that question of yours was a little trap, you know?  I’m not as jealous as you think.”

“Trap?  You’re accusing me of setting traps?”

“No.  It’s just that it would have been ungallant of me to say I was more worried about the ad dollars than about our love.”

“Now we’re talking gallantry?” she said, her eyebrows rising.  “I thought that went out with King Arthur.”

She was having a hell of a lot of fun with me.  “I hope not.  I mean, it complicates things sometimes, but underneath it all, I think men and women enjoy gallantry.  Don’t they?  I mean, don’t you?”

“Why honey-chile.” she said, her voice reverting to plantation Southern.  “You’re a throwback.  My beloved Henry is a throwback to the Age of Courtly Love.  You’d have been a favorite of Eleanor of Aquitaine.”  Caroline frowned.  “But this is 1975, and I do believe we’ve had Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan since Eleanor.”

Her sarcasm was getting under my skin, but I wasn’t about to let it show.  Cool Hand Luke, that was me.  “So you think human nature has changed in the last million years?  Male and female?  The courtship rituals?  The game-playing?  Isn’t your trying to get me all steamed up about Ralph really just a private little game?”

“I?  Try to steam you?”  The plantation Southern was gone.

“If it’ll make you happy, sure I get steamed up about Ralph.”

“If it’ll make me happy?”  Her voice rose a couple of decibels.  “What makes you think your claims on me make me happy?”

“Claims?”

“Claims!  Ownership!  Chattel!”  She stood up.  “Ralph’s a friend.  He is no longer a lover.  Can’t you get that through your troglodyte skull?  Why do you want to own me?”

“Own you?  Own you?” I shouted.  “I don’t want to own you.  I just want to be noticed.  I came over here to see you because I love you, and I find myself sitting in there like a patient in some doctor’s waiting room.”

We stared at each other for a long moment.

“I just think it’s amusing that you go tilt whenever the subject of Ralph comes up,” she said, a smile playing at her lips.

“Well, I wondered why lunch with Ralph was so crucial on the day we’d scheduled the Tech Week lunch.  Mind telling me?”

“He has some problems, if you really need to know.  Financial problems.  His gallery.  He doesn’t have a lot of people he can talk to.  He trusts me.”

“Wonderful.  He trusts you.”

“Come here, honey-chile,” she murmured, half-closing her eyes and stretching out her arms.

I stood frozen for a second. Then, almost against my will, I lurched toward her.  I put my arms (not my hands) around her neck.  She pressed up against me, and I could feel her breasts under her sweatshirt.  Somewhere deep in her throat she chuckled.  “Don’t you just love making up after a fight?” she said as she pressed herself against me and began kissing me ferociously.

“I don’t know,” I said, coming up for air.  “Maybe we could lighten up on the fight stuff.”

“Lighten up?  But honey-chile, it’s half the fun.  Gets us all in a lather.”  She pressed her pelvis against mine, then pulled away.  “It gets you so aroused and angry and hard that you physically abuse your poor Caroline for hours, sending her into ecstasies.”  She sighed. “Now let me call Lisl back and tell her I’ll talk to her tomorrow.  Meet you in the bedroom in a minute.”

It’s no use, I thought, as I walked down the hall to the living room to find my drink.  I was emotionally hooked, skewered, and hung out to dry.  I was obsessively in love with this woman.  I heard the nails of little paws clacking on the parquet floor behind me.  I turned and there was Sly gazing up at me with what had to be a smile on his whiskered face.


I found my drink and headed for Caroline’s bedroom.

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