Excerpts for July, July : A Novel
By Tim O'Brien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Copyright © 2002
All right reserved.
Class of ’69 The reunion dance had started only an hour ago, but already a good many of the dancers were tipsy, and most others were well along, and now the gossip was flowing and confessions were under way and old flames were being extinguished and rekindled under cardboard stars in the Darton Hall College gymnasium.
Amy Robinson was telling Jan Huebner, a former roommate, about the murder last year of Karen Burns, another former roommate. It’s such a Karen sort of thing,” Amy said. Getting killed like that. Nobody else. Only Karen.” Right,” Jan said. She waited a moment. Move your tongue, sugar. Details.” Amy made a weary, dispirited movement with her shoulders. Nothing new, I’m afraid. Same old Karen story, naive as a valentine. Trust the world. Get squished.” Poor girl,” Jan said.
Poor woman,” said Amy.
Jan winced and said, Woman, corpse, whatever. Still single, I suppose? Karen?” Naturally.” And some guy ?” Naturally.” God,” Jan said.
Yeah, yeah,” said Amy.
Earlier in the evening, they had liberated a bottle of Darton Hall vodka, which was now almost gone, and both of them were feeling the sting of strong spirits and misplaced sentiment. They were fifty-three years old. They were drunk. They were divorced. Time and heartbreak had exacted a toll. Amy Robinson still had her boyish figure, her button nose and freckles, but collegiate perkiness had been replaced by something taut and haggard. Jan Huebner had never been perky. She’d never been pretty, or cute, or even passable, and at the moment her bleached hair and plucked eyebrows and Midnight Plum lipstick offered only the most dubious correctives.
What I love about men,” Jan was saying, is their basic overall cockiness. That much I adore. Follow me?” I do,” said Amy.
Take away that, what the heck have you got?” You’ve got zero.” Ha!” said Jan.
Cheers,” said Amy.
Pricks,” said Jan.
They fell quiet then, sipping vodka, watching the class of ’69 rediscover itself on a polished gymnasium dance floor. Unofficially, this was a thirtieth reunion one year tardy due to someone’s oversight, an irony that had been much discussed over cocktails that evening, and much joked about, though not yet entirely deciphered. Still, it made them feel special. And so, too, did the fact that they were convening on a deserted campus, in the heart of summer, more than a month after the standard graduation-day gatherings. The school had a forlorn, haunted feel to it, many memories, many ghosts, which seemed appropriate.
Well,” Jan Huebner finally said. Bad news, of course Karen’s dead. But here’s some good news. Gal never went through a divorce.” That’s a fact,” said Amy.
I mean, ouch.” Ouch is accurate,” Amy said.
Jan nodded. Twenty-nine years, almost thirty, and guess what? That slick ex-hubby of mine, Richard the Oily, he grins and waves at me and strolls out the door. Doesn’t walk, doesn’t run. Strolls. Talk about murder. Am I wrong about that?” You are not wrong,” said Amy.
We’re discussing the male gender, aren’t we?” We are.” Well, there’s your moral,” Jan said. One way or the other, they’ll kill you dead. Every time, flowers and gravestones. No exceptions.” Stone dead,” Amy said, and leaned back to scan the crowd of aging dancers. Thirty-one years, she thought. A new world. After a time she sighed and freshened their drinks and said, What say we get laid tonight?” Yes, ma’am,” said Jan. By pricks.” For sure.” Big, dumb, bald ones.” Amy raised her glass. To Karen Burns.” To divorce,” said Jan, and then she turned and waved at Marv Bertel, a come-dance-with-us motion, but Marv shook his head, tapped his chest, and leaned back heavily against the bar.
Marv was recovering from a dance with Spook Spinelli, wondering if his heart could take another hit. He doubted it. He doubted, too, that he should risk another bourbon, except the drink was already in his hand, cold as a coffin, and might quiet the jump in his heart. Partly the problem was Spook Spinelli: those daredevil eyes of hers, that candid, little-girl laugh. Over half a lifetime, through two tepid marriages, Marv had been massaging the fantasy that something might develop between them. Pitiful, he thought, yet even now he couldn’t stop hoping. All those years, all that wee-hour solitaire, and he was still snagged up in Spook Spinelli. Also, of course, there was the issue of a failing triple bypass, the butter in his arteries, the abundant flab at his waist. All the same, Marv reasoned, this was a goddamn reunion, possibly his last, so he knocked the drink back and asked the bartender for one more, on the rocks, double trouble.
Across the gym, under a flashing blue spotlight, Spook Spinelli was dancing with Billy McMann. They were hamming it up, making faces, being sexy for each other, but Billlllly did not once take his eyes off Dorothy Stier, who stood talking near the bandstand with Paulette Haslo. After three decades, Billy still hated Dorothy. He also loved her. The love and the hate had hardened inside him, one reinforcing the other like layers of brick and mortar. In a few minutes, Billy decided, he would treat himself to another drink, or maybe three or four, and then he would amble up to Dorothy and explain the love-hate dynamic to her in all its historic detail.
Dorothy knew Billy was watching. She knew, too, that Billy still loved her. Later, she told herself, there would be time to take him outside and admit to the terrible mistake she had made in 1969. Not that it was a mistake, not in the long run, because Dorothy had a sweet husband and two incredible kids and memberships in a couple of smart-set country clubs. Still, if Billy needed a lie, she saw no harm in offering one. Almost certainly she would kiss him. Almost certainly she would cry a little. For now, though, Dorothy was busy telling Paulette Haslo about her breast cancer, which thank God was in remission, and how supportive her sweet husband and two incredible kids had been.
It was July 7, 2000, a humid Friday evening.
The war was over, passions were moot, and the band played a slow, hollowed-out version of an old Buffalo Springfield tune. For everyone, there was a sense of nostalgia made fluid by present possibility.
So sad, so bizarre,” Amy Robinson was saying, but so predictable, too. The old Karenness, that’s what killed her. She never stopped being Karen.” Who did it?” said Jan Huebner.
Amy wagged her head. Nobody knows for sure. Some guy she had a crush on, some creep, which is par for Karen’s course. Never any luck.” Never, ever,” Jan said. And the thing is, she could’ve been a knockout, all the ingredients. That gorgeous red hair, tons and tons of it. I mean, she was a knockout.” Weight problem, of course,” said Amy.
So true,” said Jan.
Plus her age. Face it, she was piling up the mileage like all of us.” Amy sighed. Total shame, isn’t it? The golden generation. Such big dreams kick ass, never die but somehow it all went poof. Hard thing to swallow, but biology doesn’t have politics. The old bod, you know? Just keeps doing its silly, deadly, boring shit.” True again,” said Jan, and blinked down at her hands. What happened to us?” Got me,” said Amy.
Maybe the Monkees.” Sorry?” Plain as day,” Jan said. A whole generation kicks off with the Monkees, how the heck could we expect things to work out? I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her’ I mean, yikes, talk about starting off on the wrong foot. So naive I want to cry. Last train to Clarksville, babe, and we’re all aboard.” Amy nodded. You’re right,” she said.
Of course I’m right,” said Jan.
May I ask a question?” Ask.” Where’s our vodka?” Similar conversations were occurring all across the darkened gym. Death, marriage, children, divorce, betrayal, loss, grief, disease: these were among the topics that generated a low, liquid hum beneath the surface of the music. At a table near the bar, three classmates sat discussing Amy Robinson’s recent good fortune, how after years of horrid luck she had finally met a decent guy, a math teacher, and how on her honeymoon the two of them had won a sweepstakes or a bingo tournament or a state lottery, something of the sort, no one knew quite what. In any case, Amy was now very well off, thank you, with a fat bank account and a brand-new Mercedes and a swimming pool the size of Arkansas. Her marriage, though, had failed. Barely two weeks,” someone said, and someone else said, Talk about irony. Poor Amy. Finally gets lucky, lands a guy, and then the guy turns unlucky. Back to square one. Even her good luck goes rotten.” Thirty-one years ago, in the brutal spring of 1969, Amy Robinson and many others had lived beyond themselves, elevated by the times. There was good and evil. There was moral heat. But this was the year 2000, a new millennium, congeniality in public places, hope gone stale, morons become millionaires, and the gossip was about Ellie Abbott’s depression, Dorothy Stier’s breast cancer, Spook Spinelli’s successful double marriage and the fact that she seemed to be going for a triple that evening with either Marv Bertel or Billy McMann.
The terrible thing,” Jan Huebner was saying, is that Karen was obviously the best of us. Huge heart. Full of delusions, I’ll grant you, but the girl never once gave up hope.” Which is what killed her,” said Amy.
Sorry?” Hope. Lethal.” Jan thought about it for a while. She also thought about her ex- husband, how he waved and strolled out the door. Maybe we should just stop hoping,” she said. Maybe that’s the trick. Never hope.” You think so?” said Amy.
Sort of,” said Jan.
After some consideration Amy Robinson shrugged and said, Boy, let’s hope not,” and the two of them laughed and moved toward the bar to check on Marv Bertel’s heart.
The music now was hard-core Stones translated for the times by clarinets.
Techs were tumbling. Portfolios were in trouble.
Karen Burns was murdered.
Hard to believe,” classmates would say, about this, about that, about belief itself. And as people conversed, shaking their heads, disbelieving, a pair of slide projectors cast fuzzy old photographs against one of the gymnasium walls: Amy Robinson as a pert, freckled, twenty-year-old rabble-rouser; Jan Huebner dressed up as a clown; Karen Burns eyeing a newly hired professor of sociology; David Todd looking trim and sheepish in his blue and gold baseball uniform; Spook Spinelli posing topless for the Darton Hall yearbook; Dorothy Stier in a pink prom gown, ill at ease, glaring at the camera; Billy McMann clutching Dorothy’s hand; Marla Dempsey chasing Paulette Haslo with a fire extinguisher; Ellie Abbott and Marv Bertel and Harmon Osterberg playing cantaloupe-soccer in a crowded noontime dining hall. According to a reunion brochure, sixty-two percent of the class had settled in the Twin Cities area Amy Rob-inson and Jan Huebner lived seven blocks apart in the nearby suburb of Eden Prairie. Forty-nine percent had paid at least one visit to divorce court. Sixty-seven percent were married. Fifty-eight percent described themselves as unlucky in love.” Almost eighty percent had selected romance and/or spiritual fulfillment” as the governing principle of their lives. In the gymnasium that evening, under cardboard stars, there were six attorneys, twelve teachers, five physicians, one chemist, three accountants, nineteen entrepreneurs, fourteen full-time mothers, one chief executive officer, one actor, one minister, one Lutheran missionary, one retired librarian, one lieutenant governor. Billy McMann owned a chain of hardware stores in Winnipeg. Amy Robinson practiced criminal law. David Todd, who had lost a leg in 1969, and who was now divorced from Marla Dempsey, ran a successful custom-made furniture business. Paulette Haslo was a Presbyterian minister, although currently without a church, which was still another topic of conversation. Hard to believe, isn’t it?” said a former point guard for the Darton Hall women’s basketball team, now a mother of three. Little Miss Religion, our own Paulette, she got caught breaking into this . . . I shouldn’t say. Big scandal. God fired her.” Wow, that’s horrible,” said a former teammate, an accountant for Honeywell. Maybe we should you know go say something.” About what?” I don’t know what. Try to help.” The former point guard, now a mother of three, shook her head and said, No way, I’m in heat, I deserve some fun,” and then she moved off swiftly toward the bar.
A solid one hundred percent of them, the brochure declared, had come to the reunion ready to party.” It was a muggy evening, oppressively hot. In an open doorway at the rear of the gymnasium, Ellie Abbott fanned herself with a fallen cardboard star, sharing a cigarette with David Todd and Marla Dempsey. The three of them were cordial enough, even laughing at times, but here too, as with Amy Robinson and Jan Huebner, hope was a problem. Marla was hoping that David would stop staring at her. Ellie was hoping that Marla would stop talking about their classmate Harmon Osterberg, who had drowned last summer in the waters of northern Minnesota. David Todd was hoping that Marla regretted leaving him in favor of a glib young stockbroker with a wallet only slightly fatter than his head.
He was a dentist,” Marla said. She looked at Ellie, then at David, then down at her folded arms. Harmon, I mean. And a good dentist, too. Super gentle. At least that’s what people said.” She stopped, looked away. Maybe you already knew that.” I did,” said Ellie.
Marla sighed. God, it makes me sick. Such a dear, dear guy, always so happy, and now he’s just no offense he’s this dead dentist. I mean, if Harmon could be here tonight, I bet anything he’d be telling dentist jokes.” And drowning jokes,” said David.
Ellie said nothing. For eleven and a half months she had said nothing.
She made a vague flipping motion with her wrist, took a last drag on David’s cigarette, excused herself, slipped inside, sat alone on the bleachers for a time, waited for the loons to leave her head, waited for Harmon to finish drowning, and then went off to find her husband.
In the gymnasium’s open doorway, David Todd and Marla Demp- sey watched Ellie slide away into the crowd of dancers.
Take a guess what I’m thinking,” David said.
Ellie and Harmon,” said Marla. They came close a million times. Maybe finally . . .” Like us?” No. Not like us.” A quiet came between them, which they recognized from their years of marriage: power failure. They’d always wanted different things. It was no one’s fault. Even while they were together, Marla had made it clear that she could not wholly commit, that their marriage was an experiment, that David’s missing leg sometimes gave her the creeps. She hated touching the wrinkled stump, hated looking at it. And there was also the scary suspicion that this man could sometimes read her mind, like a fortuneteller, as if some spy or peeping tom had been slipping him all her secrets over the years.
Even now, as David smiled at her, Marla wondered what the smile concealed. He was a good man, yes, but even his goodness frightened her.
So go ahead,” David was saying. I’m ready.” Go ahead what?” Ask where I’m staying.” Marla frowned. I’ll bite. Where are you staying?” On campus. Flarety Hall. We can be there in sixty seconds.” If we run?” Gimp,” he said, and slapped a hand against his prosthesis. Take our time, move slow, it’ll be like ” Stop.” Right. Sorry. I’m stopped.” Marla studied him with flat, neutral eyes. Anyway, look at me. Eight extra pounds. Not a clue where it came from.” You look exquisite,” said David.
Sweet, sweet lie.” My pleasure.” David took the cigarette from her lips and threw it to the ground. Don’t do that to yourself. Makes a girl infertile.” Marla glanced at him, surprised.
I hadn’t noticed that you’ve stopped.” No. But I’m me, my love. You’re you.” My love’?” Sorry again. Divorced, right?” Light me another one, David.” No can do. What about those unborn babies?” Pity,” Marla said, but they’ll have to live with it. Come on, fire me up.” David tapped out a cigarette, slipped it between her lips, struck a match, and watched her lean in toward the flame. Lovely woman, he thought. Steel eyes. Silver-blond hair, cut short. Trim. No hips. No sign of any extra eight pounds. They’d remained friends over the years, sharing lunches, sometimes sharing a bed, and David found it impossible to believe that they would not somehow end up living together and getting old together and finally occupying the same patch of earth. Anything else seemed mad. Worse than mad. Plain evil.
Marla blew smoke into the July night.
Much better,” she said.
Not for our babies.” David, please, just lay off the baby bit. I’m low on the estrogen. Empty tanks. I’m old.” You’re not old.” Oh, I am. Always was.” She looked away, looked back at him, went up on her toes to kiss his cheek. It’s this reunion crap, David. Makes people mushy.” Mushy, mushy me,” said David.
Absolutely. Mushy you.” I need to ask something.” Is it mushy?” It is,” he said.
No,” she said. Don’t ask.” Marla folded her arms and stepped back.
She was fond of David, and wished things could be otherwise, but what he wanted from her had never been a possibility. Ordinary love what most people thought of as love meant little to her. All she’d ever wanted was to be alone.
Let’s dance,” she said. I’m not good at this.” At what?” This. Talking.” Fair enough. But if you don’t talk, I don’t dance.” The leg?” Not the leg,” he said. I was just hoping . . . Forget it.” You could watch, couldn’t you?” Sure,” he said.
He followed Marla inside and stood watching as she danced with Dorothy Stier and Spook Spinelli. It was true, he thought, that she’d put on some wear and tear. The sockets of her eyes had yellowed, and her skin had a brittle, crumbly texture that took him by surprise. She looked her age, which was fifty-three. But even so. A stunning fifty-three. In point of fact, he decided, a sublime and heartbreaking and drop-dead magnificent fifty-three. For all the years, there was still the essential Marla glow, a magnetic field, whatever it was that made Marla into Marla, and that made his own life worth the pain of living it.
After a time Marv Bertel cut in and took Spook off into a corner, and a moment later Dorothy Stier went off to make peace with Billy McMann, and then Marla danced alone.
Well, David thought.
He turned away.
The evening had been hard on him, because he wanted Marla so badly, and because she’d lived inside him for so many years, through a whole war, then through a nine-year marriage, and then for the decades afterward. To her great credit, he real ized, Marla had never feigned passion, never promised any-thing. David believed her when she said she cared for him. But he’d come to despise the word care.” He did not care for it. Nor did he care for the terrible truth that Marla only cared for him.
After two drinks David left the gym. He made his way across campus to Flarety Hall, took the elevator up to his room, removed his trousers and prosthesis, popped a Demerol, popped a half sheet of acid, lay down on the tile floor, and allowed the narcotics to carry him away to a shallow, fast-moving river called the Song Tra Ky.
Ellie Abbott left not long afterward with her husband Mark and with the sound of waterfowl in her head. Harmon would not quit drowning on her. She had dared two affairs in her life, and the second had gone very, very badly, and for almost a year now Harmon Osterberg had been drowning in her dreams. It was something she could never talk about. Not with Mark, not with anyone. The affair had developed by accident, a mild flirtation, never serious, but the consequences were enough to make her believe in Satan. For the rest of her life Ellie would be living with the terror of a ringing telephone, a midnight knock at the door. Secrecy was squeezing the future out of her.
In the cab, as they returned to their hotel, her husband said, Was it fun?” Fun?” she said.
The reunion. Old friends. What else?” There was a vacuum, as if a hole had opened up between them, and for a few seconds Ellie wondered if she might find the courage to fill it with the truth.
Instead, she said, Oh, fun.” Almost everyone else partied well past midnight. There were door prizes, and later a limbo contest, and later still a talent show designed for laughs. Marv Bertel was among those who stayed. Bad heart and all, he danced several times with Spook Spinelli, who was already married, doubly, and who divided her time between two adoring husbands and a now-and-then lover on the side. By one in the morning Spook’s head was on Marv’s shoulder. I’m a lardass,” he told her, but I’d make a fantastic third husband. Hide me under your bed. Beds, I mean. Plural.” Spook said, Nice dream, isn’t it?” Just say maybe.” Maybe,” she said.
Dorothy Stier stayed late too. She stood outside with Billy McMann, trying to explain away her mistake, or what Billy called a mistake. She blamed it on religion and politics and the vast differences between them in 1969. I was Catholic,” she reminded him. I was a Nixon chick. What else could I do?” They have churches in Winnipeg,” Billy said. They have tea services.” At least dance with me.” No, thanks,” he said.
Please?” Can’t. Won’t. Very sorry.” He would not look at her. So where’s Ron this evening?” Stop it.” Let me guess,” said Billy. Home with the kids?” Correct.” You bet correct. Home. Kids. Correct’s the fucking word.” Inside, Marla Dempsey still danced alone, down inside herself.
Sixty seconds away, David Todd lay shot through both feet, dumb as dirt, sky high, listening to the sound of everness cut through the tall, bloody grass along a shallow river west of Chu Lai.
Harmon Osterberg was drowned.
Karen Burns was murdered.
In a downtown hotel room, Ellie Abbott lay under the sheets with her husband Mark. At one point Ellie began to reach out to him. She almost said something.
Just after 1:30 in the morning the band stopped playing. The lights came up, people began drifting toward the door, but then someone found a radio and turned up the volume and the party went on.
At the rear of the gym, six former football players ran passing plays.
The twin slide projectors pinned history to the wall. RFK bled from a hole in his head. Ellie Abbott swam laps with Harmon Osterberg in the Darton Hall pool, and Amy Robinson hoisted a candle for Martin Luther King, and a helicopter rose from a steaming rice paddy west of Chu Lai, and David Todd bent down to field a sharp grounder, and Spook Spinelli grinned her sexy young grin, and Billy McMann dropped a fiery draft card from the third- floor balcony of the student union, and the Chicago police hammered in the head of a young man in whiskers, and Paulette Haslo led a pray-in for peace, and Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon, and the President of the United States told heroic lies in the glaring light of day. Out on the dance floor, Minnesota’s lieutenant governor and his ex-fiancée, now a Lutheran missionary, swayed slowly to fast music. A chemist explored the expansive hips of a retired librarian. A prominent physician and one of the full-time mothers, formerly a star point guard, made their way toward the women’s locker room. Unofficially, this was a thirtieth reunion officially a thirty-first and for many members of the class of ’69, maybe for all of them, the world had whittled itself down to now or never.
Billy McMann and Dorothy Stier had gotten nowhere. They stood near the bar, apportioning blame.
Paulette Haslo was on her hands and knees, drunk, peering up at the cardboard stars. All I ever wanted,” she was telling no one, was to be a good minister. That’s all. Nothing else.” The chemist kissed the weathered throat of his retired librarian.
Minnesota’s lieutenant governor had vanished. So, too, had his ex- fiancée, now a Lutheran missionary.
Spook Spinelli sat in Marv Bertel’s lap. Marv was certain his time had come. Spook was certain about nothing, least of all her own heart. After a while she excused herself, got up, and went off to call her two husbands and a now-and-then lover named Baldy Devlin.
At a back table, over the last of their vodka, Amy Robinson was confiding in Jan Huebner about her disastrous honeymoon, explaining how packets of hundred-dollar bills had ended up in her purse. Good luck, Amy said, always came in streaks, and she was afraid she’d used up every last bit of hers on the honeymoon. It sounds superstitious,” she said, but I wonder if I’ve got any left. Luck, I mean. For the real world.” Divorce sucks,” Jan said.
Big-time,” said Amy.
Jan looked around the gym. Maybe we’ll strike gold. This whole place, take a look around. Nobody left except a bunch of wretched old drunks like us. People who need people.” I hate that song,” said Amy.
The universe hates it,” said Jan. Except for my ex-husband.” Screw the guy,” said Amy.
All the guys,” said Jan.
Cheers,” Amy said.
Cheers,” said Jan.
Amy finished off her drink, closed her eyes, blinked out a smile. Crazy, crazy thing, isn’t it?” Crazy what?” Oh, I don’t know, just getting old,” said Amy. You and me, our whole dreamy generation. Used to be, we’d talk about the Geneva Accords, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Now it’s down to liposuction and ex-husbands. Can’t trust anybody over sixty.” Amy shook her head. For a few seconds she tapped her empty glass against the table. And you know the worst part? Here’s the absolute worst part. Our old-fogy parents yours and mine, everybody’s they didn’t know jack about jack. Couldn’t spell Hanoi if you spotted them the vowels. But one thing they did know, they knew damn well where we’d end up. They knew where all the roads go.” Which is where?” Jan said.
Here.” Sorry?” Right here.” Jan sighed. True enough,” she said. But look at it this way. Things could be worse. We’re not Karen Burns.” Copyright © 2002 by Tim O’Brien. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Excerpted from July, July
by Tim O'Brien
Copyright © 2002 by Tim O'Brien.
Excerpted by permission.
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