A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me

David Gates

June 3, 2015 
The following is from “Banishment,” a novella collected in David Gates’s A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. Gates lives in Missoula, where he teaches at the University of Montana, and in Granville, New York, where he is associated with the Bennington Writing Seminars. A former Guggenheim Fellow, for many years he was a writer and editor at Newsweek.

On the morning I was to be married for the second time, I found myself going to my knees in the shower and praying: that my ex-husband would find love again, that I would always love my new husband and that whatever pain I had caused in my life would be forgiven. Just one of those maudlin premenstrual moments; I suppose the wedding could have been better timed.

I washed and conditioned my hair, toweled off, blow-dried the fog from the mirror and laid out makeup on the ridge of the sink. The pictures from that afternoon show a bride who might still have passed for thirty.

* * * *

In fact, I was thirty when I’d married my first husband, whom I’d met when we were both working for a Gannett paper in the Hudson Valley—not much of a job for a gal with a degree from Yale, but we can’t all be Naomi Wolf. (She was in my year, and I suppose I have to admit to some envy.) He was twenty-seven, and looked younger; they’d hired him mostly because he could speak Spanish, having spent two years with the Peace Corps in Peru. This was back in 1990, when somebody had finally noticed that Hispanics had come to Peekskill, Beacon and Poughkeepsie. I’d been at the paper for three years. When the editor brought him by my cubicle, with his flat stomach and male-model stubble, I thought: Maybe one time with him just because I can, if I can.

I stole him from a nice girl, a senior at SUNY New Paltz, fit enough to go rock-climbing and kayaking with him; fool enough to think her fetching round cheeks and her strong thighs and her blond hair entitled her to a happy life. Oh, I don’t really know what she thought: there must have been something to her, because her favorite book was The Bell Jar, though I imagine she’s moved on by now—haven’t we all? We used to go out for beers, the three us, and I enjoyed playing the treacherous older sister: confiding to her in the bathroom about the man I was seeing, then coming back to the table and running a bare toe down her boyfriend’s shin. He told me, after she’d moved back to California, too heartbroken to go to her graduation, that she sometimes liked to slap his ass when he was on top of her—being a nice girl, she always asked first—and did I think that was weird. Poor babies: so scared of themselves and each other.

* * * *

The man I’d been seeing was a writer at Newsweek, where I’d been a fact-checker—researchers, we were called, I suppose for the think-tankiness of it—hired straight out of college for twenty thousand a year. But of course with the prospect of moving up. The writer had graduated from some sweaty school like Penn State, and had worked for the Daily News, so the Yale thing must have been part of my appeal, along with the prettiness and youngerness and wantonness things. He was married—shockeroo, right?—and years later, when he ended up in a wheelchair, the wife stayed with him. It’s possible she loved him—I never met the lady.

I didn’t start up with him, strictly speaking, until after I’d left Newsweek, where after four years I’d been getting nothing but the occasional shared byline: some writer, out of charity or laziness, would delegate me to do a phoner. And I’d had a seminar with Harold Bloom, for God’s sake. So my writer got me a job at that loser paper—people knew his name back then—where I could write and report, review the occasional movie or concert, accumulate some clips while looking for something worthy of me. Because I still wanted to consider myself a New Yorker, I kept my walkup on 88th off Amsterdam, reverse-commuting to Westchester an hour each way.

It turned out that my writer was mentoring another female researcher too; no wonder he’d been so willing to put in a word for me. A couple of evenings a week he’d come to my apartment straight from his office and give me a good mentoring, with a scarf tied around my ankles. He always had to leave by eight o’clock, which left me free to go out. I’d offer him my shower, but he was afraid to go home with wet hair.

* * * *

I stayed faithful to my first husband for five years, which doesn’t make much of a story, so I’m not going to string this out. The writer and his wife, though: wouldn’t that be a story? I asked my mother once, “Would you have stayed with Daddy if you hadn’t had me?”

“That’s like saying if you’d been born with flippers would I have aborted you.”

“Yeah but if I’d been already been born. . . ” I was twelve, with a steel-trap mind, though I picked up only the illogic, not the flippiness of saying this to a daughter about to get her first period.

“That’s my point,” she said.

Actually, she did leave my father, though not until I was out of the house. Whereas the writer’s wife—I don’t know, somebody goes, somebody stays, somebody latches onto somebody else, the thing with somebody else does or doesn’t go on for a while: am I missing something here? Sad old Harold Bloom—who never put a hand on my thigh, though he did call me “my dear,” which is what he called everyone, male or female—made us read the Paradiso, where it turns out to be Love that’s moving the sun and the other stars. That’s the big kicker. I have to say, I’m not seeing it.

* * * *

“So it looks like I’m moving up to Westchester,” I told the writer. Now that we were no longer fucking, he’d begun taking me to P.J. Clarke’s again; while the mentoring was intense, we’d met at a bar for alcoholics on Tenth Avenue, with fluorescent lights and signs all over the walls displaying the prices of drinks. I assume now that this was less about caution than about wickedness.

“At your age?” he said. “An extra five hundred square feet isn’t worth a human life.”

“Actually,” I said, “I think I’m getting married.”

“Oh,” he said. “Huh. Well, I guess this was bound to happen, wasn’t it?” He raised his snifter of Remy. “Mazel tov. It’s done wonders for me.”

* * * *

I grew up in Saddle River, New Jersey. Richard Nixon moved there a couple of years after I went off to Yale, and my mother claims she spotted him once, through the tinted glass in a black car, and gave him the finger, all of which I doubt. She’d gone to Smith, where she majored in English and made obsessive visits to Emily Dickinson’s house. When I was in high school and college she was always going into the city for readings, and off to Vermont or Provincetown to take classes with poets who picked up a living by humoring middle-aged ladies. I don’t mean to make her sound silly: at least she became a bit of a pothead, as I found out. I was sixteen when I caught her out behind the shed where my father kept the riding mower. “We won’t tell your dad,” she said—as if doing so had been thinkable—and passed the joint to me. My father was the executive vice-president, whatever that is, of a company that manufactured speaker systems for movie theaters, which I suppose made both of them artistic people. He’d voted for Nixon the first time but not the second, or maybe it was second time but not the first—I know he didn’t like McGovern, whichever one that was. When their marriage broke up, he took a lesser job in Philadelphia, while she stayed in Saddle River—all her friends were there—in a shabby one-bedroom condo.

Both of them showed up for my wedding—my first wedding, I’m talking about. I hadn’t seen them together since graduation, and neither had brought a new partner. My mother called celibacy “taking early retirement”—she was kidding herself: it wasn’t that early—and the alimony payments her “pension.” My father, God knows, but he’d always had a little something on the side, and by then he’d probably had the sense to lower whatever his standards had been. They sat next to each other at our table, talking forehead-to-forehead. My father had put on weight and had broken veins in his face, but he’d shaved his cheeks to a shine and his suit fit him—no gap between the back of the coat and the shirt collar, which was more than I could say for my new husband’s suit. My mother had frosted her hair, gotten a salon tan and taken a Valium.

“We were just talking about the Easter basket,” my father said to me. He raised his chin at my husband. “Here’s something I bet she didn’t tell you.”

“Is this going to be touching?” I said.

“This one year, I don’t remember how old she was—”

“Seven,” my mother said.

“Somewhere in there,” he said. “Anyway, she got her grandmother, Helen’s mother this was, to take her to the drugstore and she spent her allowance on an Easter basket for us. Which she then proceeded to hide—where did she hide it?”

“The clothes hamper,” my mother said.

“So she had us go all around the house—‘warmer,’ ‘colder.’ She was the most loving little thing.”

“That’s a great story,” my husband said.

* * * *

I suppose I should be able to explain why I married such a boy, shouldn’t I? Technically he was both handsome and good in bed, and so kind that one time, early on, his guilt over the nice girl made him impotent with me, and so besotted that it didn’t happen again. And thirty seemed like an appropriate age, as if you’d been holding out all that time for the right man. I liked it that he didn’t have that East Coast thing: he’d grown up in New Mexico, near Albuquerque, and he thought Yale and Harvard were simply good schools, like Stanford and Berkeley. He graduated from the University of Wyoming. I don’t want to give you the idea that he was a knuckle-dragger, despite the Peace Corps and the rock-climbing. He read Borges and Marquez, and he translated some of Neruda’s love poems for me; no one, he claimed, had really gotten them right, though I doubt he did either. And he wasn’t interested in having kids—for the record, here’s exactly what he said. He said it was quote perfect just the two of us. I see now that this left him some wiggle room, if imperfection ever began to reveal itself. When I told him I’d rather stick my head in the oven, he probably thought it was just feminist talk from his feisty girlfriend.

We both knew I was a better writer, but while I bitched and moaned about having to cover an Andre Rieu concert, or the annual car show in Rhinebeck, he had what he thought was a book project: following around a young Dominican infielder who played for some minor-league team in Poughkeepsie. The manager gave him unlimited access: the dugout, the locker room, the bus, the budget motels. When he couldn’t get any magazines to pay his way, he used up all his miles on a reporting trip to the D.R. But ultimately, he said, this was a story about America. Well, you see the sweet futility.

* * * *

So our newlyweds rented a half-townhouse in Croton: numbered parking spaces by our unit, a shared balcony divided by an iron railing. We bought a yard-sale sectional—don’t think we didn’t have our little joke about sectional intercourse—and bookcases from Ikea and a kilim from Pottery Barn that was too thin to stay in place on the parquet floor. We had—but what’s the use of saying what we had?

On Saturdays he used to go over to the outdoor basketball court on our cul-de-sac. One of the neighbors had bought a pair of nets, and somebody would get on somebody’s shoulders and hang them from the orange hoops. Women could play, if they showed up in even numbers. Afterwards, we’d have his friends over for beers; he grilled on the balcony until the people on the other side of the railing complained.

He taught me to drive stick and I taught him to keep his fork in his left hand; I showed him Paris and he showed me Machu Picchu. We learned Italian together, with tapes and a book, though we owed so much on our credit cards from those two trips—his miles would’ve been a help—that we never made it to Florence. I was the teacher in bed, and the one time I found a girl for us—I met her at the gym—it was sweet to see that he didn’t know the etiquette, though of course who does, and afterwards he claimed not to want to again. Maybe he was afraid of hurting my feelings—he’d been scrupulous about looking only in my eyes—but I think I shocked him with some of our goings-on. A boy with boundaries!

Or maybe he just had better sense. I might have known this girl would make a pest of herself. I mean, a nineteen year old? Studying “communications” at a two-year college? But she was pretty, and eager, and I’d missed being with a girl, and she saved the I’m in love with yous until a couple of weeks afterward, when she begged me to meet her for coffee, just the two of us, and kissed me as I sat down. I finally had to block her number and her e-mail, and started going to a gym in Tarrytown.

* * * *

His Dominican infielder: that’s what we should’ve done. It might have opened up his girl side, not to be too graphic. He took me to a game once and we sat just behind the dugout near first base. He usually sat in the dugout, but he told me the players were superstitious about having a woman there. That’s how gay baseball is. His infielder batted left-handed against the enemy’s right-handed pitcher—my husband explained that he was a switch-hitter, which was too hilarious—so I had a good view of how his buttocks strained the fabric of his baseball pants as he bent forward, wagging his bat. When he scored a run and loped back to the dugout, his smile exposed a broken tooth. Picking out this boy to follow around couldn’t have been a purely journalistic decision. This isn’t a regret, exactly, though now that I’m in my fifties, I couldn’t pay two boys to come to bed with me and play. Well one could, I’m sure, in some specialized corner of hell. Not all young women, it turns out, are such body Nazis; you have to wonder what’s wrong with them. But I’ve become such a spectacle these days, with my still-handsome legs and not much else, that I mostly forego the pleasure.

It was sometime after the debacle with the nineteen year old when my husband got a phone call at his desk, then came over to my cubicle with his poor-me look: his infielder had gotten caught selling cocaine. “I’m a shitty reporter,” he said. “This was going on the whole fucking time, and I’m asking him like how do you place your feet to make the double play.”

“But this is great,” I said. “Now you’ve actually got a story.”

You go ahead and write it. I don’t appreciate being lied to.”

“Okay, but you can’t waste time getting all humiliated. You need go see him in jail. Like now. Before they deport him or something. Not to sound heartless about it.”

“This wasn’t the story.”

“This was always the story,” I said. “You just got it handed to you.”

“Yeah, well I guess I’m not a realist,” he said.

“Oh, baby,” I said. “It’s going to be a long life.”

* * * *

I’d been remarried for a year when I spotted him at the organic supermarket outside Poughkeepsie, with my replacement. I’d heard they’d moved somewhere nearby, but I was passing through, needed to pick up olive oil and some decent coffee, so I figured what were the chances. He’d always hated shopping, but there he was pushing the cart, with green things up in the part you unfold to put a baby’s legs through, while she was doing the hunting and gathering. That prayer of mine, about him finding love again—whatever it was he’d found with me, it had never been that.

The new wife might have been pregnant then, though she wasn’t showing: their son must be a teenager now. I hear her on the radio all the time—maybe you do too. She’s the one who does that two-minute spot every day on NPR: A Word In Edgewise, explaining what she calls the “always-surprising” origins of common words and phrases. The theme music is Tom-Tom Club’s “Wordy Rappinghood”—that’s what she calls herself—and it runs on something like a hundred stations all over the country. Pictures on her website suggest she hasn’t lost her looks, though who knows how recent they are. So in every way he traded up. And really, God bless him. Did you know that the word “maudlin”—but of course you do.


From A HAND REACHED DOWN TO GUIDE ME. Used with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House LLC.  Copyright © 2015 by David Gates.

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