So the yipping bitch was to his right. At least, that was Carl White’s assessment of her at that moment. The yipping bitch. Now, one might think that this phrase was in reference to a dog, but it wasn’t. It was in reference to his ex-wife, Mandy. Correction: his soon-to-be ex-wife. But that was merely their future. In that moment in the lawyer’s office, she was intent on rubbing his face in the stink of their shared past. But this yipping of hers might as well have been silence. To Carl, it was all the same. Nothing of value said either way. And so Carl sat silent in the lawyer’s office as she yipped, and in reality they were pretty much saying the exact same thing. It dawned on Carl that these moments of nothing said had become old hat to him. Nothing of value ever shared. It was just the way with women. For Carl, anyway. Like a glass ceiling of affection, the women in his life were close enough to touch, even to hear and feel their breath, but distant in every other way. He remembered the first time Mandy was this close to him, and now he wished he had shut his eyes, plugged his ears, and walked the other way. It would have spared him from sitting in this dreary office enduring the disapproving frown of a slimy lawyer like Vincent Stone. Vincent Stone’s office was a world of polished dark wood. Even the walls were wood. The office a holdover from the 1900s, when the current occupant’s great-grandfather had started the law practice. In fact, Stone, with his slicked hair and tailored suits, looked like a carryover of the 1900s himself. Scattered about the office walls, blending nicely in the patterns of wood grain, were various Klimt paintings. It was actually an interior designer that chose the paintings, employing their perfectly complimentary tones to offset the wood walls and furnishings. Carl glanced around the walls, trying to focus on something other than what was behind Stone’s desk—the one part of the room’s décor that was so misplaced that it obviously was not the work of an interior designer. Peaking from a slightly ajar closet door was a human skeleton. Carl White did not want to look at that skeleton, but it was like a car wreck, or like his failed marriage, hell his failed life, he just couldn’t get away from it.
Carl White was the type of guy that sweated a lot, and even though it was a normal temperature in the lawyer’s office, he made no effort to wipe his glistening brow. He figured he’d let them see him sweat. He was done impressing anybody. To prove this, he cleared his throat and mussed a hand through his hair, unearthing a half-dollar sized bald spot like a bull’s eye on the top of his head. It didn’t matter. His inhibitions were deadened, and for the moment, he could not care less about his flaws. He was an underachieving, out of shape, balding, untactful white American man. Hear him roar.
Carl caught the glare of the skeleton again, but then he glanced away from it quickly, focusing again on the Klimt artwork scattered throughout the room. Klimt’s The Kiss hung on one wall. Carl remembered studying the painting during an art history course he took in junior college—back when he still had a chance at a decent future. As he stared at the painting now, it occurred to him that it was an odd choice to have such a vision of romance on a divorce lawyer’s wall. Not realizing that the painting was merely chosen for its hues matching the office décor, Carl began to wonder about Stone’s motivation for securing it there. He thought that maybe it was meant to instill a sense of remembered bliss in the combatants that gathered in that room. But wouldn’t that be bad for business? The painting seemed to suck Carl into it, as if he now stood over the figures, a look of passion and bliss on the lovers’ faces. And he thought about that look on Mandy’s face. Not with Carl, mind you, but instead with someone else. Carl figured probably with Joe Clarke. Before Carl met Mandy, he was starved for sex, so one can imagine his exponential disappointment when sex with her seemed like a chore and he usually hurried the task of finishing just so he could dislodge himself from that sack of boredom. The look on Mandy’s mid-coitus face was the same look she’d have when she had her nails done. He considered bringing this up in a stilted, casual tone right now, just to see her flush with embarrassment, but she was busy babbling on like a two-stroke engine. Babbling on about what she was always babbling on about. About how useless Carl was as a father and a husband. And as a human being. It became so mundane for Carl, so cyclical, that he was a master at translating her voice back into background static, like a distant, slightly out of tune radio. Carl was back inside the painting and wondered if Joe Clarke would finally get annoyed by this bitch, too.
“ . . . See what I mean? He never listens.”
Carl snapped out of some fragment of daydream, falling out of Klimt’s painting and finding Mandy glaring at him, their marriage now bookended with this look. He should have recognized that this misery would ensue after the first time she glared at him like that. They were halfway through their first date and she noticed a trail of toilet paper stuck to the shoe of their waitress—a rundown looking scrap of a woman. It was a diner, very low key, and the people around them were just working-class folks out for a cheap pile of meatloaf or a slice of pecan pie. When Mandy made a comment about the waitress’s TP trail, Carl laughed amid a bite of mashed potato. A small white globule launching from his mouth like a tiny snowball and landing on the table. Mandy’s accompanying giggle devolved into that glare, and she looked around the diner, as if suddenly horrified to be sharing a meal with this man. Carl often wondered how they even got past that first date to end up married. And now there it was again. That glare.
And now, in the lawyer’s office, there was no way around it, she was right, he didn’t have a clue what she was saying before she bagged him for not listening. He wanted to say something pithy, like that he only paid attention when there was something worth hearing. But that would be too much work. Instead, he offered a limp, “Huh?”
“I was saying, Carl, that I will decide what is best for my son. Visiting rights are non-negotiable, I’m staying firm on this.”
For some reason, Mandy had developed the false impression that she’s a good mom. Carl was willing to concede that he was not the world’s greatest dad, but his fatherhood was most certainly no worse than her motherhood. Mandy wanted to use Paul, their son, as some sort of weapon to take digs at Carl. A negotiating tool. Blue chip collateral. Paul didn’t care one way or the other where he spent his time. It could be at Carl’s place or Mandy’s place. It was all the same to him.
Carl gazed back at the Klimt painting in order to avoid her eyes, and he said, “I just want to have more say in what goes on in my son’s life, that’s all.”
Mandy said, “You’re lucky I’m not cutting you out completely.”
Against Carl’s better judgment, he took the bait. “And what makes you feel a judge would give you that right?” he asked.
And she said, “Because they don’t look kindly on fathers with anger management problems.”
“Or on wives with fidelity problems,” Carl snapped with a hint of self-righteousness. But in reality, the comment made him longingly jealous. He wished he was the one with the fidelity problem, or the means to acquire one. He wished he wasn’t the rube. It no longer mattered to him that some other guy was sticking his dick in his wife. He just cared that it happened on his watch. That he stuck to his vows, while she disregarded hers. The accusation levied on her was born in the same empty part of his psyche where, as a kid, he tried to justify not wanting the same Big Wheel or Intellivision game console that all of the other neighborhood kids had. Unfortunately, the infidelity label doesn’t fit the bag of dilemmas he now carried on his back through this life. That’s what he was thinking about as his hand crept to his belly, dry skin catching in the pull of cheap fabric as he rubbed, making a wish on a Buddha.
“I don’t have a fidelity problem,” she said, her eyes snapping to Stone as the words fell from her mouth, and Carl knew she was probably starting to wonder why they were paying this overpriced asshole to sit silent while they engaged in a spat identical to the ones that had sewn their marriage together for so many years. And Carl for once agreed with her since he, too, would be stuck with a share of the bill. This asshole lawyer better intervene soon and help them bust the seams apart once and for all.
“I don’t have an anger problem,” Carl said. Suddenly it seemed important to defend himself, but he wasn’t sure why. Sometimes even a kicked dog has an inkling of fight left in him.
Mandy said, “The cops needed to be called to the house for you going psycho and kicking the coffee table into splinters.”
With his hands now folded on his belly, fingers locking tremors from his hands, he carefully replied, “That is a matter of semantics. The police didn’t need to be called. The police were called. And I think I had a right to kick my coffee table after finding out my wife was banging someone else.”
He used the term, banging, for the harshness of it, even though he couldn’t picture Mandy banging anyone. The blunt description would give Vincent Stone fodder for dinner anecdotes in the future. And so then the husband stares straight forward and lets her have it. Carl imagined Stone saying this with glee as he dabs away the blood of rare beef from his lips. In reality, Carl assumed Mandy would have that nail-painting expression no matter who she was banging.
The word, banging, got the reaction he wanted. Mandy shut up. She rolled her eyes and looked out the room’s window, as if too hurt to speak. But it wasn’t hurt that shut her up, it was blind hatred. The word also got a reaction from Vincent Stone. Stone shifted in his seat. It was clear that he should interrupt at this point, but he looked a bit hesitant, as if he knew that doing so may limit his dinnertime story about this miserable comedy. “All right, look,” Stone says. “We’ve been over this enough. Do you think we can agree on the terms we already have spelled out about visitation?”
Mandy looked from the window to the lawyer and she said, “Look, I’m already agreeing. He’s the one that, at first, agreed, but now, as usual, he flakes out at the last minute. Questioning everything. As soon as he commits to something, he can’t follow through.” She turned toward Carl, saying, “ Make a decision for once, Carl, and stick with it. You are consistently…”
Carl knew all too well, as Mandy babbled on, that Mandy’s accusations and complaints were famous for muscling past one another neck and neck in order to garner attention. At the end of the day, though, all the accusations were rooted to one source: Carl. It was just that everything in the world was Carl’s fault. Go ahead, Mandy, pile it on. She was the master at ripping him apart on countless levels, leaving the pieces strewn about her like petals pulled from a flower. I hate him, I hate him more, I hate him, I hate him more… But Carl could never understand how this helped her cause, since she never closed the deal on one argument before opening a new one. Carl hoped that would be the case here in Stone’s office, hoping now that she was on a role, and she’d just keep going like that two-stroke engine. Carl looked at the lawyer. Then at the Klimt painting. He might as well just go out and grab a coffee at the café on the street and watch the pretty girls walk past.
Mandy went on and on and it became futile to tune her out. Like an incessant drip from a sink. The squeal of a car alarm. And all of a sudden, a realization washed over him. This woman had robbed him. Robbed him of years of passion and joy. Episode after annoying episode opening in his mind like a photo album, the pages leafing through years of documented unpleasantness. Mandy nagging him out of bed on a Saturday morning to fix some mundane thing. Mandy getting wasted and causing a stir at her office Christmas party and leaving him alone there while she wandered off with God-knew-who. Mandy using Paul to play tug of war with him at every turn.
Carl’s attention shifted onto the skeleton in the closet as it leered from behind the slightly ajar door. Only now, it didn’t seem to be staring at him. It seemed to be staring at something on Stone’s desk. Carl looked at the desk and saw a shiny, black Cross pen. Carl stared at the pen and then it was in his hand. He drove the pen into Mandy’s forehead, right between her eyes. Her eyes widened and crossed, looking at the pen sticking from her forehead before she slumped in her seat like a balloon drained of air.
The lawyer stared at Carl for a moment, silent with shock. Then Vincent Stone said, “Thank Christ, I didn’t think she was ever gonna shut up.”
“Think that was decisive enough for her?” Carl said, and the two of them laughed together. The scumbag lawyer and Carl. Even the skeleton seemed to be laughing now.
But then Carl snapped from the fantasy. Mandy still ranting beside him, saying, “…he’s weak and he’s…” Stone still sitting, pretending to be interested. The skeleton leering at Carl again.
Carl stood from the seat and he lifted his hands in the air like a conductor calling the symphony to attention. He said, “All right, look, enough, just do whatever you want. I don’t even give a shit anymore.” He delivered this message to the skeleton. He couldn’t even stand to look at Mandy or the lawyer anymore. Carl said to the skeleton, “Just send the fucking papers for me to sign.” And he stormed out of the room.
He walked from the office building and down the street, the sidewalk scattered with mid-afternoon pedestrians, each toiling with a unique agenda. He wondered if any of them felt the way he did. Klimt’s lovers lingered in his mind, and he wished that he could experience just one moment of that brand of passion. He realized that he was actually jealous of the painted figures forever entwined in that embrace. As he walked, his car key felt cold in his fingers, the florescent NKOTB keychain swinging lamely beneath the umbrella of his palm. Mandy gave the keychain to him one Christmas. One of her many subtle cuts at him. She was always good at passing off her judgmental bullying as “all in fun.” Dignity was just one more thing she took from him. So what if he enjoyed the goddamn New Kids on the Block? At least he was man enough to admit it. So what if he’d graduated to NSYNC or Clay Aiken? She couldn’t let him have his joys? Bitch calling him a “ped” for liking boys. And he’d correct her by saying: “I don’t like boys, I like boy bands.” And so he kept the keychain out of spite. To prove to her that she couldn’t break him.
His anger with her was renewed. Had it ever dissipated? And he stood there on the sidewalk and stopped to lean against a tree to shake her face from his mind. He took a few deep breaths, closing his eyes for a little self-soothing, and he cultivated his standard fantasy. There he was, standing on the Idol stage, belting out a song as the crowd and the television audience dropped their jaws in adoration. Ryan standing off to the side, his perfect white teeth chiseled into a smile. Randy bobbing his fat head, Paula’s drugged eyes gazing approvingly, and even Simon shrugging and conceding that he can’t argue with what Carl was selling. Carl calls out to the adoring crowd, “I love you. I love you all.”
And before he even realizes that he’s now shouting in reality, the fantasy dissolves and he hears his own panicked voice, as if it is speaking independent of his own vocal chords, calling “Oh, wait, wait.”
A meter maid was placing a ticket under the windshield of his Crown Victoria.
Carl trotted the rest of the way to the car, saying, “Oh, wait, I got it. I’m leaving.”
The meter maid, a squat woman with pockmarked skin, said, “Sorry. Already recorded in the book.” She seemed to smile as she pushed her pen back into its holster like a gunslinger having felled the town thug.
Carl’s voice was beginning to rise in speed and cadence. It sounded kind of whiny, and he imagined Mandy shaking a disapproving scowl at him. “But you know me,” he said to the meter maid. “What are you doing?”
The meter maid said, “Then you should already understand that it’s in the book.” The meter maid snapped shut her ticket book and turned to walk away.
Carl repeated, “But you know me.” He felt like a little kid arguing with the inevitability of bedtime.
“Yeah, I do know you. And you should know better.” The meter maid said, shrugging dismissively and walking away.
Continued in: Nocking the List: Part 2 — A Menu of Anything