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SKIPPING IT

The Literary Review 35.3

     The truth is I wasn't having a terrific week when I got the call from Gar's roommate. I was under pressure at work — a new job I had taken to make more money — and I was fighting with my wife who was five months pregnant and seemed to have lost interest in sex or me or both. So when the call came, it was almost a relief to have Gar to worry about.
     The roommate said he thought Gar was in trouble. "He's drinking pretty heavily and acting weird," he told me. "He's taken to powdering his hair on the sides. By his temples."
     What, I asked, was that all about ? "I don't know," the roommate replied, "I asked him about it but he said he was just going gray. He got real touchy about it so I dropped the subject."
     I asked if Gar was working. The roommate said no. "You're his friend," the roommate said. "I mean, can you talk to him?" I said I would give Gar a call, and I did, later that morning.
     I told Gar I hadn't seen him in, I figured, six months, and I wanted to come out and buy him lunch. He was agreeable, so I rescheduled some business appointments and then walked three blocks east to pick up the subway to Brooklyn. It was a spring day in 1964, overcast, windy, and cool. John F. Kennedy, the darling and the hope of my generation, was dead four months, and the country seemed to have lost much of its enthusiasm and direction since then.
     On the train, rattling along under the East River, I tried to collect my thoughts about Gar. Richard Garland was one of several friends who came with me to New York after college to find work. Of the group, Gar was having the toughest time getting it together, which didn't surprise any of us who knew him well.
     Gar wasn't really bad looking, but he was hardly physically imposing. Short and scrawny, he faced the world with wire rim glasses, a high reedy voice, and a mustache that never grew in thick enough to cover a weak upper lip. He had a kind of seedy, down at the heels appeal to certain women with strong maternal instincts, but his infrequent romances were typically short, black humored farces where he was, by his own admission, betrayed, abandoned, or otherwise humiliated.
     His work record was similar. Gar couldn't find a steady job, at least not one he would accept as worthy of his education and intelligence. He tried a few positions connected with manuscript editing but he always seemed to have disagreements with his superiors and then he'd get kind of prickly and usually be fired.
     Still, Gar was ironic and funny. "People think I'm paranoid," he used to say, "but I'm not. The world does fuck me over on a regular basis." He was tolerated and invited along by the group, perhaps in part to remind us by contrast of how well we were doing with our girlfriends, wives, careers. He served as our scapegoat, our failed romantic. By a perverse power of negative example, he made our own personal compromises seem less onerous.
     I got off the subway at Grand Army Plaza and walked toward Park Slope. Gar had moved out here from Manhattan a year ago to save money, which was one of the reasons I had seen so little of him recently. He was renting a room from a guy who had a basement floor through apartment in an old brownstone.
     Gar met me at the apartment door and suggested we walk a few blocks to a local bar he knew for lunch. I checked his appearance as we walked, trying not to be too obvious about it. He had always looked older than his true age, but it was clear that his temples and sideburns were powdered gray. In the direct sunlight the effect was false, almost theatrical.
     I apologized for not keeping in touch. I asked how things were going for him.
     "Never better," said Gar, smiling. "I've got several irons in the fire right now, several things close to breaking, but nothing I'm at liberty to discuss at the moment."
     The bar interior was dim, with light diffused through dusty windows. Of the dozen men in the place, none were under fifty and a few were clearly alcoholic. Two men sitting in the back called out to Gar, and he suggested we join them for a couple of rounds. I was there to talk seriously with Gar, but I didn't see how I could gracefully refuse.
     Gar introduced me to Hector and Jimmy, then ordered a shot and a beer from the waitress, a tired woman with dark hair roots who looked like she'd been around a few corners. I asked about lunch. Sandwiches were available. What kind? American cheese. I ordered an American cheese sandwich and a beer.
     After a few drinks, Gar and his friends began to trade stories about women they had known and jobs they had held. Most of the stories were pretty self-serving, and there seemed to be an informal agreement in force against challenging anyone else's version of things. I figured Hector and Jimmy at maybe thirty to thirty-five years older than Gar, although he was certainly matching them story for story. I noticed that his powdered temples looked a lot more natural in the interior light than they had outside in the direct sunlight.
     I listened to them swap stories for about an hour. Then I told Gar I had to get back to Manhattan and asked if he wanted to walk me to the subway. I said maybe we could talk a little, just the two of us. He said he figured he'd stay at the bar a little longer. I told him Molly was asking about him and wanted him to come into Manhattan for dinner. He said he was pretty busy these days but he'd give us a call soon.
     When I got back, I caught flak from my boss for the long lunch hour, so I worked late to score points and by the time I got home Molly had already eaten. I made a sandwich and cracked a beer in our tiny galley kitchen and took them into the living room to eat at the coffee table. Molly sat across from me looking as exhausted as I felt. The gentle swell of her belly reminded me that I would soon have to look for a larger apartment, although we could hardly afford the present one.
     As I ate, I remembered a National Geographic article about some species of shrew or field mouse. It described how the female became increasingly hostile to the male during the term of her pregnancy, finally chasing him from the nest just before giving birth, presumably to prevent him from eating the babies. This seemed to express Molly's exact attitude over the past few months.
     I thought about my job selling accounting systems to brokerage firms. It wasn't what I studied music for, that was certain. Although I was trying to pick up an MBA at night, deep down I didn't really believe I had any aptitude for making money.
     I finished the beer, and started to worry about the kid. Thoughts like, how did we know the kid would be okay and healthy and smart? I mean, no one ever planned to raise an ax murderer. And maybe our marriage would succeed, whatever that meant, and maybe not, but either way we were guaranteed plenty of pain and compromise.
     I thought about Gar. Suddenly — inexplicably — I envied his life, his bizarre accomplishment.
     I leaned forward to catch Molly's eye and tried to smile engagingly.
     "Molly," I said, "did you ever feel like just skipping it? I mean, the whole thing?"
     "Skipping what? What are you talking about?"
     "Well, didn't you ever feel like just skipping the middle part — I mean, all the stuff in between school and retirement — and just going right to the end? Then all the struggles would be over and the uncertainties and you'd know how everything turned out and you could reminisce about it with your friends. I mean, don't you think, in some ways that would be nice?"
     "Are you crazy?" Molly said, and for just a second she looked truly scared.
     The moment hung between us. Then it passed. She said, "Get me a beer from the fridge, will you?"
     "I don't think you should," I said. "Not if you've had one or two already. Remember what the doctor said. About the baby."
     "Are you going to be boring?" Molly asked me.

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