6 - Dinner with the Decrepitudes
"Hello, Honey. How was your day?"
That was something the Little Woman would say. It would have been totally out of place from the mouth of Jake's wife Marilyn if it weren't for her ability to say it with the clear connotation that it didn't really matter how his day was and she didn't care anyway and he was not to answer.
"You'll need to go out and pick up a couple of bottles of wine for this evening."
"About that: Couldn't you…" Jake stopped. He could complain about not having been asked or even told about the Decrepitude's invitation, but that wouldn't change the fact that they were going to be here for dinner. Nor would it work to ensure that such oversights wouldn't happen again. It was too late for that. Besides, despite having just arrived, he found himself relishing the chance to get out of the house for a few minutes.
"Couldn't I what? Do you have to put your hands on the wall like that? You can't sit down to take off your shoes? You have to put paw marks all over the wall? A child; this is how a child behaves." Marilyn completely lacked the ability to recognize the inconsequential, a skill that Jake had lauded in his second book as a key to effective prioritization.
"Don't bother taking off your shoes, you may as well go out to get the wine now. And some Port for after dinner. Not ruby, tawny. Are you paying attention? You're such a little boy."
That last line was meant to put a playful spin on the nagging. It failed. Jake about-faced and exited, glad for the peace.
How could she have changed so much over the years? Was he the cause? Did he do something to bring out the shrew in her? He had long ago given up on its extermination. Michael must have seen it a lot sooner. At eighteen he went off to school and never came back. Oh, there were the occasional holiday visits, phone calls, notifications of big events--all perfunctory and dutiful-- but never an extended return. They had seen Michael's boy, their grandson, exactly three times, never for more than a day and a half. He would be just past his fifth birthday now.
Bless Michael. Go Michael. He cut the cord, cut his losses; something Jake could never do. Jake just hoped Michael didn't resent him for being so weak. There may have been a time when Jake truly loved Marilyn but he couldn't remember it. For him, the driving force was never love but a need to make her admire him. Deeply judgmental, she was a test, a challenge. As though engendering her admiration was the pinnacle of impression; if she fell, the world was his. Could that desire actually have been a form of love? He remembered a singular fantasy he had of her sitting in a circle of her girlfriends on a girl's night out, speaking glowingly of him while they lambasted their mates and male-bashed in general. That vision had once given him comfort. A few years back he would have passed it off as youthful naïveté. He no longer indulged in such forgiving descriptions. Of late, insane delusion came to mind, or perhaps merely impossible stupidity on his sunnier days. In a few years the description would have to get scatological.
The appropriate time of life to indulge in critical self-examination had long passed. Such pondering could only lead to self-pity, which was unacceptable. Still, he acknowledged that whatever the source of this drive for her admiration, it had led to unquestionable success. He was a published and highly regarded author, financially secure--call it wealthy--still strong and healthy, which Marilyn maintained was the result of the high fiber and roughage diet she had kept him on for many years. Little did she realize that the only roughage he got during working hours was the wilted lettuce on his Big Mac. Could the very success he enjoyed have been the undoing of his marriage, lovelessness aside? Now that he was successful and praiseworthy by any standards, his desire for her, or at least for her admiration, was gone and she became a chore.
Jake arrived at a little corner grocer where, in an uncommonly sharp reaction to societal trends, they maintained an exceptional selection of wine. Sliding back amongst the cabernets he selected a favorite of his. Next to it stood a similar vintage from a vineyard that was unknown to him for slightly less than half the price. Rationalizing that he would probably only get a single glass out of it he swapped for the cheaper bottle, confident that the Decrepitude couldn't tell a good wine from Algerian bilgewater. And who's to say it's not good just because it's cheaper?
After picking out a tawny Port per instruction, he returned to the cabernet section and spitefully re-swapped bottles. If you're only going to get one glass and you have to spend the evening in conversation with that blubbering old boor, he reasoned, you owe it to yourself to get something you like.
Before he quite reached the checkout, Fly-Fishing Quarterly caught his eye.
Leafing through, the glossy pictorial of a dazzling wooden skiff caused him to genuflect involuntarily. Like an elegant, painstakingly polished piece of antique furniture, it gave the same impression of depth and seriousness that one would get from a big mahogany meeting desk; all edges sensuously rounded yet fundamentally masculine. Tiller steering--no wheel. Wheels are for posers. A man fishing the Keys in that boat would have an assured serendipity unheard of in the overcrowded streams up north. The boat would lead a man to secret holes and hidden treasures, leaving the jealous rabble on the dock feeling like wannabes. One of the pitiable posers might offer, "That sure is a lovely boat," to which a man would respond, "Thanks, she's a beaut, isn't she?" "Don't you find the tiller a bit inconvenient?" "Nah, I guess you tend to like what you're used to." The wannabe would then back off, shaded green by a man's easy-going saltiness. The glorious splendor of the vision nearly caused Jake to rise and shout, "I am healed!"
Jake read further. Twenty-three grand, up front. Built by an old Seminole, with a rawhide face and presumably hands to match, who declared these wooden sculptures to be his love, not his job.
"That's a lovely boat," said the store proprietor looking over Jake's shoulder.
"She's a beaut, isn't she?" Jake replied, omitting the "thanks", for now. "Just this, and the wine."
The Decrepitude's pale yellow Lincoln Town Car was in the driveway when Jake returned. After parking and turning off the motor, Jake sat in his car breathing deeply, soothed by the tomb-like insulation of his Lexus. The thought of the evening ahead made him weary and sore to the core and brought on a powerful urge for sleep, though he wasn't really in need.
Marilyn rose with fluid urgency as Jake entered the sitting room and quickly took the bottles from Jake's grasp as if she were ashamed he had had to run out to get the wine at the last minute. Her own fault thought Jake, but he knew he would hear about it later.
"The guru is home," announced the Decrepitude with a chuckle; the same chuckle he had emitted on each of the previous ten thousand occasions he jokingly referred to Jake as a guru. Jake was certain it was meant as a little dig at him, at least partially; a way of pointing out that he knew Jake when he was just a regular guy and Jake had better not forget it. "Guru" was trite, yes, but Jake took a quiet pride in his status and was especially rankled because it explicitly left the impression that the Decrepitude was denigrating his accomplishments. Not that Jake ever required a special reason to despise the addle-brained old fart.
Mrs. Decrepitude said, "It's so nice to see you again, Jake. My, you're looking well. Marilyn's diet planning does pay dividends, doesn't it?"
Mrs. Decrepitude was herself roundish and rumpled, like her husband. In fact, they looked rather similar; more so with each passing year, following the dog and owner cliché. Jake was unsure which was the dog and which the owner, perhaps they alternated over the years. She was matronly and refined, but still warm and genial. Jake had always liked her, or at least found her inoffensive, which qualified as liked in his world.
Jake settled into an armchair and, noticing the evening paper by his side, resisted the urge to pick it up and read it as though he were blissfully alone. Instead, he steeled his spirit and dutifully triggered conversation.
"How is Audrey doing these days? You know, I see her everyday of course, and the results of her work, but I haven't had a chat with her in what must be years.
"Oh well, you know what a go-er she is," said Mrs. Decrepitude.
She meant go-getter. Jake had a paternal hope that Audrey wasn't too much of a go-er. Or did go-er not mean what it used to?
"But she needs to settle a bit," she continued. "I really hope she finds a good young man. A young girl, well anyone really, can get lost in a career."
She spoke like a woman who had spent her life among those devoted to success and achievement, perhaps inordinately in her view, while she remained on the sidelines and attempted to hold together a lesser, more fundamental reality. She was, in fact, such a woman.
"She's spending a lot of time with that fellow--Joe, is it? No, Jim--in Technical. He's doing quite well himself. Maybe she feels he's up to her standards," the Decrepitude added, with that odious chuckle for punctuation.
"What about your dear son? You know, when they were little, I had this silly fantasy of them being sweethearts and marrying," she laughed at her own romantic foolishness.
"Michael never exhibited a desire to be castrated," Jake chose not to say. She was a kind, sweet woman. She didn't deserve to be subjected to his venom. It was moments like this when Jake was cowed by his own hostility.
When Marilyn appeared with the wine she and Mrs. Decrepitude took control. For the next half-hour or so hairdressers, antiques, lovely new shops, and incompetent service dominated the conversation. Rich, old ladies, Jake observed wistfully; that's what they are now--Rich Old Ladies. Marilyn was still beautiful, to be sure. Mrs. Decrepitude never was, but her social grace and refined charm allowed her to sustain peerage with the aesthetically superior. In a way, hers was the preferable beauty as it stayed with her, relatively unchanged, throughout her life. Marilyn's looks were maintained only through painful perseverance. An incalculable litany of hairdressers, nutritionists, personal trainers and plastic surgeons had been adopted, then abandoned after a change in fashion or mood. Jake detached his attention from their conversation and turned it, momentarily, to which of her body parts had cost him the most money over the years. The tummy tuck was exorbitantly expensive, but it probably couldn't compare to 35 years of weekly hair appointments, especially given their progressive rate of inflation.
But there was no arguing with the results. The fresh, immortal beauty of her youth had evolved into the beauty of victorious battle. Skin not quite as smooth--but it did not flap and remained unblotched. Hair was no longer silken, but perfectly prepared and exquisitely executed. Her body no longer supple and soft, but lean to the bone and flawlessly carried. Sexual attraction was still there. Oh it had waned at times over the years, but somewhat extraordinarily, it had always returned. After thirty-five years of marriage he was still sexually attracted to his wife. He resolved to re-think her most expensive body part one of these days.
A Rich Old Lady. Abruptly, Jake thought of Marilyn as prey for a gigolo. He was firm in his belief that she had always been faithful, but still, a beautiful Rich Old Lady: prime gigolo bait. The thought didn't bother Jake. Not that he would sit quietly and let an affair go unimpeded, but Marilyn had always been, and still clearly was, attracted to status. And a man with status wouldn't be attracted to Marilyn's kind of beauty, preferring a young cookie. His sole affair--what was it now, fifteen years ago--was barely that; over in a brief few days, over almost as soon as it was consummated. Maybe fidelity wasn't so bad. Maybe, even though he harbored a vague and constant hostility towards his marriage, even though he never would reconcile with his son's alienation, it saved him from emptiness, more often than not. Maybe that made it a good marriage in the cold, real world. Maybe tonight, he would tell Marilyn just that, and tell her how grateful he was for her.
"Oh I can't get Jake to straighten up. Everything is a war," Marilyn laughed, pretending her belittlement was really good-natured. "I have to tell him to do everything, every step of it, then it's still only fifty-fifty whether he will get it right. Everyday I have to stop him from putting his filthy hands all over the walls."
Maybe she was a leather-faced, Nazi bitch who had destroyed his life.
It was at precisely that moment that Jake decided to buy the fishing boat he had seen in the magazine. He didn't know how, but he was going to do it. It was his goal now. Jake had to bookmark the thought for the moment because it was time for the Decrepitude to make an aside about hens.
"Let's step out for a moment and let the hens get on with things, eh?" he said, flashing couple of Don Diegos at Jake.
Jake was quite happy to step out and deal with the old man, now that his armor of misanthropy had returned after the brief slip. He despised the Decrepitude, and he felt comfortable with that. Energized by the departure of the sentimentality of a few minutes before, a discussion with the Decrepitude would serve to completely restore his cynical nastiness.
"The womenfolk do go on, don't they? Been that way all our lives I suppose," said the Decrepitude staring off across the back lawn.
Jake was about to deconstruct that comment--especially the use of the word womenfolk--but he sensed something bigger, something deep, something important, something…really, really stupid coming. So he encouraged the train of thought.
"Yes. I believe they've really only had one conversation, but it's continued for thirty years."
"Ha," said the Decrepitude, after taking a moment to get it. "Exactly."
Next came an odd question; definitely nothing Jake had anticipated.
"Jake, do you think the company is coming apart?"
"No, not at all. Why do you ask?"
"Gambling. I understand there is a good deal of gambling going on. Were you aware of it?"
"No, not really," Jake lied, then adding for diversion, "unless you mean the football pools. But that's been going on as long as I can remember."
"No, no. They're harmless. Good for morale. No, I mean, that is to say, I have heard of other things…"
Jake was wearing his most concerned look. He was primed. This was either going to be trouble or it was going to be one of the most profound validations of his Decrepitude assessment ever.
"…well, maybe it's just rumor. I have gotten wind of a sort of handicap concerning the Employee of the Year competition."
"Frankly, I find it scandalous. I have as much appreciation of good natured fun as any man. I think you would agree, I can be a very lighthearted fellow."
"But we can't have the Employee of the Year demeaned. What does it say to the people who work hard for that? Those who deserve it. Aren't they demeaned? It implies benefit for guessing right when the reason for the award is to recognize achievers. It implies that you can benefit from the award other than by working hard. That combined with another item…"
Jake swallowed deeply to suppress his anticipation of what was to come. It made him appear even more concerned. The Decrepitude took it as a cue to continue.
"…donuts. I believe they are betting on what donut I will eat in the morning. Oh, they hide it well, but I'm not entirely deaf. Especially when it comes to snippets of conversation that contain the words 'jelly' or 'cream-puff.' And I see the crowd gather around the water cooler just as I leave for my morning donut, stealing glances. Then strangely disappearing as soon as I have made my selection."
Jake held his expression. He hadn't heard that one yet and he promised God to attend church more regularly in thanks. The schoolboy delight nearly burst his heart. Could there be a more pathetic dullard, a more magnificent simpleton than this specimen before him. That he could be rich and successful; could there be a greater affirmation of Jake's malignity towards humanity?
Jake said, "Yes, I see what you mean."
"When you combine that with those foul emails that have been floating around, well, it makes me worry if things aren't falling apart. Do you suppose I should prepare a memo?"
Oh, what Jake could do with such a memo, but that would be pressing his luck.
"No, not in this case," said Jake the guru. "At least not a general one. As far as the handicap, I think that would be best handled by passing the word down the hierarchy of management rather than directly from on high. That way everyone hears it from their direct supervisor, who has punative power over them, but it can be handled discreetly so there won't be any finger pointing. I'll pass the word down." In a pig's eye. Jake knew the Decrepitude would have forgotten about this by the next afternoon, secure in the knowledge that Jake had handled it.
Jake continued, "As far as the donuts go, it's probably best to break the habit by skipping the morning trip to the donuts."
The thought of a donut inconvenience was troubling. "I suppose I could bring my own in. A bother, though."
"Or," Jake offered, "you could always choose the same kind of donut. That would eliminate the element of chance so the betting would have to stop."
The Decrepitude brightened considerably and they went to join the hens for dinner.