Last night I got the one-line email about death of a woman with whom I experienced a complicated relationship long ago. Another death to mourn. I’m pushing eighty and the older you get the more that happens. Over the years I’d done what writers do…written about her, name changed of course. When I got the email I posted “Lunch Downtown” about our time in Nassau.
Tonight I am posting two more. One from my “Venus Mons Iliad” and one from “Newspaper Gypsy.” Submitted as memento mori for a woman the very first sight of whom, when I was twenty, delivered what the Italians call Colpo di fulmine.” The thunderbolt.
Presented in inverse order, last time I saw her, then the first time — when I felt the thunderbolt. “It turns a person inside out, and there’s no going back from it. Once the thunderbolt hits, your life is irrevocably changed,” according to author J.M. Darhower.
Last Time I Saw “Glenda”
I recall my early forties in the 1980s as a bleak period of lowered expectations and increasing depression. I had given up any thought of being an author. I had lost my newspaper career. I had abandoned a subsequent Arizona career opportunity in outdoor journalism, in deference to my wife’s insistence we return to the Northwest and the house we occupied after her mother died. It was close to all her relatives but far from any place I could work.
I hated my fifty-mile commute. I disliked being a state bureaucrat. But she wouldn’t budge. So we worked in different cities and lived essentially separate lives, with rare intervals of our old happy carnality. The new year ushered in bitter-cold weather too late for hunting. Depression seeped back like a dark tide. It was February. Any day now Chloe would start nagging about preparing income taxes. Every year this activity was awful.
Actual tax preparation wasn’t onerous. We both paid withholding. Mortgage deductions were clear-cut. But with no state income tax, we could only deduct state sales taxes. That was the rub, because it played into her obsessive mindset: save every single receipt, pile them all on the kitchen table and add them up — don’t let a taxed penny go uncounted. Which gave her the chance to rake me over the coals for every purchase — loud, empty arguments lasting several days.
Hunting expenses were a fat target since I no longer could deduct them as an outdoor writer. Then there were my credit-card lunches — her definition of profligacy. Anything she missed bitching about when I spent it, she made up for. And doubled-down on ones she already raised hell about. Huge gasoline bills thwarted her, because my answer to those gripes was always let’s move closer to my job — not gonna happen.
Temperatures were in single digits. I sat in my home office dreading the upcoming clash. In broad daylight I watched two winter-fluffy coyotes hunt field mice in my frozen pasture, out beyond the stacks of firewood I’d cut…They made that stiff-legged pounce to spook a mouse into movement beneath the snow, then dug it out: the innocently violent dance of predator and prey. I picked up my hunting log to write about them.
But my pen took on a will of its own: Am I a writer? Writing always brings me ease from my lifelong bugaboo, depression. But not when I cannot freely set down some of my feelings. Not writing them fresh makes me fear losing them to the peculiar chemical alterations of unsupported memory. My body begins to run down under work stress and a frustrating and largely unsatisfying life.
I routinely get terrific headaches every single weekend; the doctors say maybe migraine, maybe caffeine deprivation. I don’t drink my three daily quarts of coffee on Saturday, the only thing that keeps me awake during the work week. Docs say a third possibility is “tension” headaches: a week of work tension released all at once on Saturday.
I am unable to write feelings about my life surrounding the job. Things done, seen, experienced. When I lie awake under insomnia I try to remember until memories go gray and flat and meaningless. When I wake up they’re gone…I will lose recent events because I didn’t write them down…
As it turned out in the long march of years, that wasn’t true. But my brain was in turmoil, and I needed to write something. It struck me as ironic to use place-names as code…
Westport to represent a flood of memories running all the way back to a virginal Florida copy boy. To the time I was hopelessly enthralled to a married woman for whom, no longer a virgin, I forsook Chloe the summer after the Army. The woman who told me she would be content to stay married if she could just have me for weekends, which hurt my youthful feelings. The woman who ultimately forsook me and broke my heart. The woman who, after I married Chloe, had a drawing table so close to my desk in our Nassau publishing house she could confide island trysts with various men enamored of the hot expatriate divorcee.
Back in my arms again on a moonlit Pacific beach.
Ms. XX Pizan’s feminist writers had educated me in the seventies about many things female. For instance a restless wife’s yearning for a tryst outside marriage, to which Glenda alluded in the sixties, stinging my tender sensibilities when I thought she was the love of my life.
But what I remembered most were stories about “abused wife” syndrome that validated her stark terror of her domineering husband. All I had known back then was he was a bully. Bullies are usually cowards, as he proved the night he caught us and I scared him half to death. Afraid to draw his gun against me, his self-image was so shattered he wound up in therapy. It broke his hold on her. She left him for me. I was devastated when she left me in turn. My only consolation was I had freed her of his tyranny. As affirmed by her coyly reported island affairs.
But she had remarried the asshole.
Which made our whole affair an exercise in futility. From my abandoning Chloe for her, to my Nassau assumption I had freed her for good from the jerk. Had he mended his ways? In Westport she said he had not, he was the same domineering creep as always. Nor had he forgotten his humiliation. He pitched a fit when she was sent from Florida to San Diego on assignment — because it put her on the same coast as me!
Her San Diego assignment meant her art career had taken as strange a turn as my writing career. A ship-refitting company sent her to Navy bases where she crawled over warship bridges, sketching improvements and upgrades, rubbing elbows with fire-control techs, sonar men and command staff. Computer design still was in infancy. Engineers relied on an artist’s eye for proportion and placement of new systems. She was very proud of her Navy flight jacket with ship patches from all her projects.
His tantrum about her assignment was logically absurd. San Diego was 1200 miles south. Nevertheless here she was, kneeling up on my car seat to lean into my arms with moonlit kisses as intimate as twenty years ago. Confirming another thing Ms. XX’s writers said: a woman will damn well do what she sets her mind to do, even under the thumb of a controlling bully. Glenda had set her mind to see me.
She took a Greyhound bus all the way from San Diego — afraid airline credit-card records could be tracked by the computer-savvy asshole. She checked into a capital motel a block from the bus station bundled in her flight jacket, shivering because the mild Northwest spring chilled her thin Florida blood. Turned on the heat!
When she walked briskly across the lobby into my arms, the deja vu was overpowering. I had no idea what to expect. So I temporized, taking comp time to drive her around to various Puget Sound tourist spots. She seemed to enjoy the tour. Back at the office, a youthful horn-dog office manager, a fishing and hunting buddy, said he saw us at a rhododendron park. He was admiring: “Dude, you still got the moves. That trim babe with the long black hair was all over you.”
Dude? I had stopped in to tell him I needed a cover story. We recently had fished the Strait of Juan de Fuca for ling cod, and I said if anybody asks we went back up tonight to catch the morning tide. He gave me a grinning thumbs-up. I didn’t strain his credulity by saying how far she came to see me — or telling him later when we got back from the beach we didn’t fuck.
But we didn’t. We did sleep together in her room. Slept, period. Something inexplicable to a “dude.” It was almost a reprise of the Florida morning in her folks’ Airstream trailer outside their home, when I returned her belongings after our breakup. Almost. They made up the trailer for me to sleep overnight before my long drive back to Georgia. At first light she slipped out of their house and into bed with me. Her hands began exploring, as if considering what my Georgia city editor called “brokenhearted sex. All sad and sweet and final.”
But my young man’s genitals were in deep freeze from the shock of our breakup. I knew I couldn’t. Just couldn’t. So I said hold still. And she did, and we slept. Twenty years later in her motel room I was the one who held still, though I sported a hard-on like a Russian bear. In my maturity, with my new-learned amorality, I knew I could all right. In spades. But she had to initiate, or ask. She didn’t. Tucked in my arms, she had that old wonderfully unconscious way of not noticing my tumescence. So once more we slept.
She was all bright-eyed and bubbly when we woke, just like that long-ago Florida morning. You would have sworn we had good sex. We spent another day together — I had tons of comp time. She shot a lot of photos. Mailed one of me sitting in her room smoking my pipe, looking bewildered. I damn sure was.
When she boarded the bus for the grueling return to San Diego, and eventually back to her keeper, she said blandly I suppose you better not tell Chloe I came to see you. That Glenda was something else. At a fish market I bought ten pounds of frozen ling cod for my fishing-trip cover story.
Months later, coyotes in the frozen pasture…and duck season over, winter was setting in hard as I dreaded my annual fiscal flaying. I shut my log. I could find no words to spell out my tangled feelings, or plumb the depths of my black depression.
And First Time I Saw Her: The “Colpo di Fulmine”
George had only selected two half-column cuts so far, to go with the People in the News box on page one. Buck took them back anyway, down the corridor and through the door where the bitter tang of metal-engraving chemicals was so strong it always made his eyes water on first entry. He skirted the big engraving cameras, lined up like proton-beam projectors on a science-fiction spaceship, and stepped around the partition that separated the art department from the engravers.
Ancient Brad Brownloe, with a fringe of silver hair around his tanned bald skull and twinkling eyes webbed in wrinkles etched by seventy years of Florida suns, was not at his desk. A woman sat there, ramrod straight and poised in Brad’s battered old swivel chair, head tipped down, focusing on a piece of advertising art. Tires, some remote part of Buck’s stunned brain noted. The deft way she handled the tools of the trade left no doubt that she belonged at the desk. They had actually hired a woman for the art department!
Buck’s reflexes saved him. He dropped the two photos in the precise spot he always did, made the same pivot on his left foot, and got the hell out of there before she could secure her dripping brush and raise those downcast eyes and turn him to stone, or a basketful of snakes, or maybe a toad. He made it past the first Arcturian ray projector and began to think he was safe, but he wasn’t looking where he was going. His dazzled vision was full of that profile, those lowered eyelashes, that midnight hair pulled back from a smooth ivory forehead into some kind of a twist that looked vaguely Spanish, that slim straight back resting on a tidy round rump scooted forward to the very edge of the chair…
He stumbled straight into Norm, sauntering out of the number two engraving darkroom, and would have flattened him if the short-legged ex-coal miner hadn’t been so stocky and well-muscled. As it was, he knocked Norm’s pipe flying in a cloud of ash and sparks.
“Jesus, Norm. I’m sorry.” He started to look for Norm’s pipe while Norm stamped out live coals.
That wily old West Virginian was grinning like a crocodile. “I see you survived vacation, Buck,” he said as Buck shamefacedly handed him his pipe. He immediately began refilling it from a foil packet of rough-cut Granger. “Now the trick is to make it through Monday without causing an industrial accident.”
“I’m really sorry, Norm.”
The engraver was still grinning that predatory grin. “Nothing to apologize for. It was your first glimpse of her after all.”
“I guess Brad finally retired, huh?”
“He’d been threatening to long enough. Yep, he hung it up. Did you introduce yourself?”
Norm started laughing so hard he choked on his pipe as he tried to light it. “Oh, boy.”
“What?” Buck demanded.
Damn it, he could feel his ears beginning to burn. The dark secret of his life — his catatonic fear of girls — was probably a running joke at the newspaper by now.
“C’mon,” Norm said. “I’ll introduce you. Better get it over before the first photo deadline or you’ll screw something up for sure. Her name’s Glenda.” He was puffing his pipe, sending out a small cloud of smoke signals. “Number one — she’s married. Number two — she’s older than you. Number three — you’ve already got competition here in the office for her affection.”
“Who said I wanted her affection?” Buck’s vocal cords were so tight it was a croak. “You mean Roman’s putting a move on her?”
“C’mon.” Norm was herding him back toward the Medusa. “Yeah, Roman. Quite the lady’s man, Roman. Too bad for him she don’t think so. She’s got a head on her shoulders, this gal.” High praise from the mountaineer.
Buck tried to hold back. Norm took his arm and moved him forward with the easy strength of a man who had loaded many a sixteen-ton in his day.
“She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!” Buck whispered hastily.
“Wal,” Norm said in his normal voice, “you don’t get out all that much. She ain’t bad. She ain’t bad at all. But you’re not being objective, Buck. Love at first sight does that to a feller.”
Oh god. Buck wanted to sink through the dirty floor and into oblivion. “Hey, Glenda,” Norm called. “Meet the reg’lar copy boy. This is Buck. He’s been on vacation.” He half-dragged Buck around the partition. The woman stood up. She couldn’t have very much taller than five feet, but from Buck’s prejudiced perspective, she filled a very large space. And filled it perfectly. She stepped toward him and held out a slender hand, man-fashion. And looked up at him with blue eyes. The deep blue, Buck thought crazily, of a jungle pool shaded by the most exotic of lotus plants. Very deep — bottomless.
“Hi, Buck,” she said. Oh God. She had one of those throaty smoker’s voices, like Lauren Bacall. Not much of a Southern accent; she must be from someplace else. She was holding the two photos he had dropped off in her left hand. “You must have left these. You were gone before I could look up. You move like a big cat, quick and quiet.”
And she smiled up at him, like being a big cat was the most marvelous thing you could be. The blue eyes changed to the pale cirrus blue of a Florida autumn sky and twinkled at him. Her hand was engulfed in his big paw. He held it as if it were precious China.
“Say something, Buck,” Norm prompted. “So she’ll know you’re alive.”
Two things instantly came together in Buck’s mind that he could not have voluntarily recalled if his life depended on it: the rituals of formal ballroom dancing from his teenage Cotillion days, and words from his high school French class. He straightened his back and bowed over that small captive hand with an air-kiss — the rituals specified no touching; that was too intimate — and raised his eyes to hers.
“Enchante, Madam,” he said.
“Oh, my!” she said, looking momentarily flustered.
“Wow, Buck!” Norm said as Buck released her hand, unable to release her eyes. “Wow, Glenda — I guess Buck has attributes unknown to us mere peasants. A young Southern gennelman, to the manor born.”
Buck dropped his eyes as his ears flamed so hot he thought they would ignite. He thought his heart would stop when she reached up and patted him in a friendly way on his shoulder.
“Now don’t let Norm make fun of your sweet gesture,” she said in that husky voice. “What the hell do coal miners know about gentility anyway?” Damn, that mild profanity made her sound even more like Bacall. “This old world is so ugly it can use a little gentleness,” she added.
“Aw, you’re just sayin’ that ’cause we all haze you so hard,” Norm said. “We do that to all rookies. We can’t cut you slack just ’cause you’re a knockout.”
She laughed at him. “In my dreams,” she said. “They do give me quite a ration,” she told Buck. “First woman artist on staff and all. But I’m tough. I can take it. Nice to meet you, Buck. Very nice, as a matter of fact.” Then she startled him by saucily sticking her tongue out at Norm. Norm laughed out loud.
Somehow Buck made his escape back toward the newsroom. He almost collided with Zack this time.
“Guess you caught the thought wave,” Zack said. “George has dithered around and made up his mind, and he’s ready to move pictures. Better go tend him before he gets cranky.”