Fork

Fiction
D.L. Olson


He nudged her through his open studio apartment door, clicking the lock behind his back, and met her mouth with his own lips—

“—Stop.”

Her wispy hair tickled his cheeks, her teeth raked his tongue, her cool hands slid under his shirt while he guided her toward the mattress on the floor—

“Gregory, stop.”

“What?”

“That’s it,” his wife was saying and pointing across the street.

Greg blinked hard and stared at the ranch house with an enormous picture window, a built-in garage, an automatic door, a tacky black eagle figurine, a white picket fence, and a putt-perfect lawn. Exactly like every other house they had driven past for blocks. Only this one was it. You could tell by the number above the door. Just as Dennis and Sandy had written. Or only Sandy actually.

He rolled the Volvo to a stop and killed the engine. “Nobody’s home,” he muttered at the sight of the empty driveway. “Probably because we’re so late,” he added, slumping behind the wheel.

“Come on,” Jane said. “We didn’t get that lost at the fork.”

“What?”

“Greg, what’s the matter with you? If you’re that light-headed again, grab a snack for Pete’s sake!”

Rubbing his burning eyes, Greg vaguely recalled something Sandy had written about parking right out front.

Jane stretched an arm into a shopping bag in the backseat, dug out what was left of a bagel, and shoved it into her husband’s hand. Greg stared down at the ugly clump of bread and bit off a tough end.

Five minutes later he was still chewing. With a toss of her close-cropped head, Jane told him, “Well, we can’t sit here all day.”

“What else?” Greg mumbled. A yellow jacket was probing the windshield as if it just might find a gap and slip inside.

Suddenly the front door of the ranch house flew open and a gray-haired woman in T-shirt and cutoffs barged out, waving. “You made it!” she called out and giggled like tinkling bells. Just like Sandy always had.

A grinning bald man, his hands awkwardly jammed into baggy jeans pockets, joined her on the steps. “Bienvenue, monsieur, madame!” the man greeted. His pencil moustache was as grizzled as his temples.

Sandy and Dennis. Of course. Actually neither looked that bad for their mid-forties. Better than Gregory did himself anyway, though Jane was holding her age the best of all. The heads of a calico and a pure white cat popped through the curtains and let out silent meows.

*

He hung his workshirt atop the cords and tiptoed toward the mattress on the floor. If she was still asleep, he’d better not wake her.

But the bed lay empty, the sheets thrown back. “How can you read this crap?” she snapped behind him, and he spun around. There she sat browsing through his thesis notes, goose bumps sticking out all over her bare limbs.

“Sartre’s fiction’s a lot simpler than his philosophy,” he muttered.

“I meant your handwriting!” she told him.

“Oh, that’s just my personal hieroglyphics.”

She didn’t laugh, not that he really expected it since she never found any of his quips amusing. She glanced up and gave his near-nakedness an ironic double-take. “You mean we’re finally going to do it?” she practically yelled.

He smoothed the hair on his temples back over his ears with both hands and slowly nodded.

“I’m in no mood for just fooling around,” she teased, the edge to her tone striking him just wrong. Even if at heart she was anything but mean or nasty.

“Don’t worry,” he mumbled, his voice pinched with apprehension.

“Good-o!” she crowed, dropping her bra and panties to the floor, and bounced over to the mattress.

He turned his back and lowered his jockey shorts, and shyly faced her defiant grin.

*

“So you decided against bringing the kids,” Sandy said, an unmistakable wistfulness to her mellow alto. Simone, the calico feline that her last letter had warned shunned strangers, nestled into her lap. So he and Jane shouldn’t take offense, she had meant.

“Ha!” Jane shouted. “You try telling a seventeen- and eighteen-year-old where to go and when!”

Sandy’s frown verged on a grimace. Good thing she let the issue drop since neither he nor Jane was eager to discuss how their boys were turning out.

“The usual everybody?” Dennis asked. Gregory looked away from his old grad school pal’s bloodshot eyes and met Jean-Paul’s vertical slits. The white tom hopped up onto Greg’s lap and scratched his snout against the hidden chin stubble.

“Bien sur,” Jane intoned. “Un bon vin blanc pour moi. But make it a small glass.”

Dennis’s grin was still boyishly mischievous, though his gaze had somehow become both oddly dull and disquieting. “How about you, Greg?”

“Sure,” he said, glancing away from what the air conditioner was doing to Sandy under her red Bucky Badger T-shirt. Why was the darned thing turned up so high?

“Sure what? Gregory, would you like some wine too?”

He met Sandy’s eyes still the clear azure of a high Wisconsin sky and shrugged. “I hardly drink anymore. But okay, why not?”

“Greg, wasn’t your drink brandy back then?” Jane asked with a convivial chuckle. Sandy wrapped her slender fingers around the calico’s flanks and held on tight.

“Yeah, that’s right!” Dennis said. “Brandy Manhattans at the 602 Club! Every Monday after Professor Jacomet’s deadly seminars! Our first semester, wasn’t it? Sandy, do we have any Korbel’s left?”

Sandy stood up with a distracted grin. Greg looked away from the tightness of her cutoffs and asked, “Or was it during our second semester?” Even though he knew full well Dennis wasn’t mistaken.

“Flaubert et Maupassant, n’est-ce pas?” Jane asked, her accent as thickly American as ever.

“Exactement, madame!” Dennis pronounced like a Parisian boulevardier. “Le mot juste. And all that other garbage.”

“Say, Denny,” Greg muttered, sitting up straight. “Maybe I’d better hold off on the alcohol for a bit. Do you have any mineral water? And some sort of snack?”

Sandy halted in the doorway, a sealed bottle of brandy in hand, and traipsed straight back to the kitchen. Greg shut his burning eyes.

“Greg has hypoglycemia,” Jane explained, a note of impatience undercutting her blitheness. “It’s no problem so long as he avoids sugar like strychnine. And snacks off and on day and night.”

Dennis stifled a chuckle. “Sort of like me with salt. Except I can eat a little.”

Greg nodded with a vacant smile.

Sandy returned with a platter of chocolate chip cookies, obviously pleased with her handiwork. And why not? A shame such a natural nurturer never became a mom. Not that she and Denny hadn’t tried. A letter last year implied the problem was his.

“Greg can’t eat sugar,” Dennis told Sandy, who frowned.

Eyeing the cookies gravely, Greg smoothed the hair on his graying temples back with both hands. “I suppose one wouldn’t hurt,” he mumbled.

“So how’s the job going, Gregory?” Dennis asked.

Greg scrutinized him like a wary stray tom.

“Greg got promoted to Associate Director last month,” Jane replied.

“My condolences,” Dennis quipped.

A genuine smile flashed across Greg’s face and as quickly vanished. Sure, the work was as bullshit as any other throughout his checkered career, but at least the salary was decent—for a welcome change. Or had something else provoked the discontent all along? “Could I use your bathroom?” he said.

“Come on, honey!” Jane shouted. “These guys are old friends! Just go!”

*

Clutching her flush and thrusting, her silky hair tickling his cheeks—

“—Greg?”

His eyes popped open and just like that the reverie evaporated.

“Here, try some of these instead,” Sandy said, grinning sweetly and bending deeply. Too deeply in fact. Or was he imagining intent in mere accident? “Dennis eats unsalted corn chips all the time,” she added, the smile even in her lilting alto. Amazing that after twenty years she still had a schoolgirl’s innocent air, as if not even suspecting anything might ever go awry.

*

Greg perched sideways on the edge of the unforgiving mattress, his face only inches from the wallpaper. His spent air whistled through nostrils strangely half-closed, his breathing twice as fast as Jane’s, lying just behind him. Lucky girl, that Jane McDowell Rykken, to sleep so like a child. She had been his wife now for almost two decades, and his closest friend, and so of course his best confidante as well. Who knew as much about him as any person on earth, including every family skeleton, faux pas, peccadillo, and embarrassment. Still there were things she hadn’t heard.

Images from their first day back in Madison kept churning through his mind. A beaming Dennis showing off a labyrinth of musty, yellowing tomes in the used-book store he owned and ran. An embarrassed Sandy pointing out the tacky office building where she toiled as a legal secretary. State Street, once the laid-back dinky downtown of a student ghetto, now a yuppie haven of tony shops selling Japanese imports, mountain bikes, and gourmet coffee—as if tasteful shopping were the long sought millennium. To think they had once risked their skulls against police billy clubs for this paltry a future.

But this was no time for thinking about any of that. No, somehow he had to get some sleep since the next day’s schedule would permit no nap. Following an early morning tour of their alma mater and brunch at the Ovens of Brittany, they’d head up to Devil’s Lake and spend the afternoon swimming and picnicking, before driving back for dinner at Paisan’s, their favorite old haunt. Finally they’d take in a Gerard Depardieu flick late at the Majestic. As full as a typical day of graduate school, only this time it’d be sheer fun.

Not that it had ever been pure drudgery back then. Yet the prospect of so much relentless relaxation on so little rest made him tense with dread. But how was he going to doze off, if he just wasn’t sleepy? Exhausted, sure, after the long drive from St. Louis, but not drowsy whatsoever.

A half hour later, Greg still lay there, his thoughts roiling as before. Why, if he hadn’t drunk more than a fourth of the St. Pauli Girl Dennis had foisted upon him? And just before going to bed he had made a point of eating cheese and crackers. But if he wasn’t hungry, then why was his stomach growling? And hadn’t he slept well in plenty of worse beds, for instance just last month at the Kansas City conference?

The thing to do was to let some pleasant memory well up and dwell on it until it drowned everything else out. And so he let them flow willy-nilly till he found himself again a thirteen-year-old swimming in his hometown public pool under the lifeguards’ watchful gaze. A flick of his thumb and a dime knifed into the water twenty feet ahead. He plunged after it, surging with long, smooth leg kicks to catch the coin before it reached bottom. Why was this his favorite game? Because no one else could swim underwater as well? Or because to those above the surface he moved in a wobbly blur? The silvery face tumbled brow over neck, slowing with every flip instead of accelerating.

He was standing in his bare feet, his toes sinking into the shag carpet. He dropped his jockey shorts to the floor and snatched the trunks from the chair and tugged them on. “God, I hope the pool’s warmer than your apartment,” he quipped, the fit of the borrowed swimsuit so snug it gave his crotch a dull ache. The woman’s giggle behind his back echoed like tinkling bells, her bikini so red it glowed to remember it. The coin landed in his palm as soft as an eyelash tickling a cheek.

“Come on in!” she screamed and dipped out of sight. A moment later she rocketed out, shaking her long hair like a sopping dog. “Just this once,” she muttered, stepping into his embrace. A freezing plume of water hit him square in the eyes. They jerked open, but saw only darkness.

*

She stood holding the refrigerator door, its light illuminating her flowing nightgown. And silhouetting what he shouldn’t notice, not on such a dear, old friend. “There’s yogurt,” she said with a giggling lilt. “And brie and crackers. And cantaloupe, strawberries, and bagels. Or how about a croissant?” As starved as he felt, it all looked tempting, especially the dark patch between her legs.

His thickening felt so uncomfortable squished against the mattress that he shifted his buttocks and found relief. Eyes open or shut, twenty years ago or hence, what difference did it make in the end? As the snack crept into his blood, he finally began to relax.

*

“Just go limp,” Denny instructed, stroking his bearded chin. “Make yourself heavy, like a sack of potatoes. Whatever you do, don’t resist.”

Sandy’s bright, cherubic smile dimmed a few watts. Jane nodded with a gulp, and Greg grabbed her clammy hand.

“They’re here,” Dennis said and took a deep breath. Three paddy wagons pulled up in quick succession. The back doors flew open and out spilled helmeted city cops. Billy clubs in hand, the officers stepped through the hippies blocking the main campus intersection in silence, their spit-polished shoes just missing the sprawling bodies.

“They’re coming this way!” Jane squealed.

A coed alongside let out a yelp. A rough hand clasped her mouth and hugged her close.

“God, I hope I don’t wet my pants!” Jane said, snuggling against Greg.

“Remember, like a sack of potatoes,” Denny whispered.

“French fries good enough?” Greg joked, his pulse pounding in his ears, and Sandy giggled. The zigzagging columns of navy blue converged without comment or curse on Dennis Hecht, the man on the megaphone throughout the last three days of campus unrest. After commandeering a spontaneous library mall rally, he had persuaded protesters to occupy the Administration building and now to block Park Street at University Avenue.

Madison’s finest finally reached their target, and two beefy cops calmly thrust their hands into Denny’s Caucasian Afro and lifted him off the ground by his hair. As he blanched and Sandy shrieked, Greg jerked awake and rolled into a warm, soft shoulder.

“Gregory?” his wife sleepily moaned and patted his hot cheek.

*

“How’s the moussaka?” Jane asked him.

“Fine, I guess,” Greg mumbled and lifted his Manhattan high to drain the last few drops. His wife wrinkled her brow in disgust.

“Are you okay, Greg?” Sandy said from across the table, wanly grinning. Had anyone ever expressed concern more sincerely?

Greg ogled her chiseled upper lip and shrugged. Just what about it was so compelling? But then what was attractive about anything on anybody? Or what made one relationship effortless and another teeth-gnashing? “Hey, guys, how about another round?” he called out. “Waiter, you call this place a bar? It’s more like a funeral parlor without the gladiolas.”

When the refills arrived, Dennis asked, “Greg, you still haven’t said a word about your work.”

“What do you want to hear?” he began and took a big swig. The icy fire of the brandy burned all the way down. “How I spend my days? Read your e-mail and wastebasket it. Back up the important memos and delete the other ninety nine percent. Surf the Web till you’re about ready to drown. Then if it gets really bad, conjugate new verbs. Like—byte, bit, bought. Or better yet—baud, bode, can’t abide? Neither has a perfective because the action is never completed. Ditto for the conditional because nobody has any choice in the matter. Do you think the flood of information will ever dry out?”

“Greg,” Jane pleaded.

“Stop the war!” Greg shouted. “Off the pigs! Don’t trust anybody under thirty! Or was it over thirty? I forget.”

“Whatever you’re up to, it doesn’t sound like teaching Flaubert,” Dennis said.

“I’ll drink to that,” Greg quipped. “And a vulture isn’t a warbler. But it goes to bed well-fed.”

Jane slipped a bejeweled hand into her spouse’s. “Remember that Mifflin Street party we all went to? Drinking brandy straight from the bottle and passing joints the size of cigars. Was that right before or right after we got engaged, Greg?”

“—Shhh, don’t say that word so loud,” he teased.

“Engaged?”

“No, the j-word,” Greg said and guffawed.

Dennis scowled.

“No, wait,” Jane went on. “Denny, you were already over in Tours teaching English. But Sandy—”

“—Sandy didn’t join me in France till the following summer,” Dennis interrupted, his tone suddenly metallic.

“You mean the summer Greg and I got engaged?”

“And you got pregnant, Jane,” Greg added with a chortle. “And we both bagged grad school for good. Or was it for worse?”

“Yeah, I was at that block party,” Sandy muttered, slowly rotating her empty wine glass between both palms.

“Of course!” Jane crowed. “That was the weekend my Mount Holyoke professor came to town, and I met him for dinner. God, was I wrecked. But old Fabrice never let on he noticed. Greg, didn’t you and Sandy go see some flick like Carnal Knowledge?”

“What was it about?” Dennis snapped, grasping his fork like a dagger and then slamming it down. Sandy blinked, and Greg stared dumbly straight ahead. “Who the hell was in it?” Dennis hollered.

Nobody said a word while Sandy slowly crossed her arms and slumped.

“Greg,” Jane said, “you and Sandy went to lots of movies together back then. Whenever I had a paper due or something.”

Greg grabbed his wife’s vodka tonic and chugged it.

*

He opened the door and she sidled inside. With one hand he turned the deadbolt while the other pulled her soft chest close and their lips locked on, her teeth raking his tongue and her hands grasping his belt. The second they hit the mattress on the floor, the phone began ringing and wouldn’t quit while they writhed and groaned.

Afterwards they lay intertwined in dreamy exhaustion. When the phone jangled again, he snatched it and mumbled, “Uh-huh.”

“Where have you been?” his girlfriend whined into his ear.

“At the library,” he said, lying with ease. Too bad it took him so long to recognize this aptitude for upper management. When his guest tried to stand up, he grabbed her wrist. She yanked it free and quickly dressed.

“Are we going to get engaged then?” his girlfriend whimpered over the phone.

“Oh, honey,” he told her. Cupping his hand tightly over the receiver, he whispered, “Don’t go.”

His guest paused at the door to mutter, “I’m dropping out of school and flying to Tours as soon as possible.”

“Greg, are you still there?” the tinny voice said in his hand.

The apartment door clicked shut. “Of course we’re getting engaged, honey,” he told her.

*

“Hey, waiter, did you lose an earring or what?” Greg yelled at the twenty-something youngster. “And isn’t it about time to mow your mop again?”

The pony-tailed waiter rolled his eyes.

“Seriously, young man,” Greg said, “how about another round while we’re deciding on dessert?”

“Greg!” Jane pleaded, laying a hand on his.

“Do you have anything without sugar?” Sandy said.

“Since she’s sweet enough as it is!” Greg quipped.

“Ma’am,” the waiter replied, “I assure you there’s not one grain of sucrose on the premises. Least of all not in any dessert.”

“Right on!” Greg hollered, his fist shooting into the air. “Power to the people! The personal is political!”

“Please don’t bring us any more drinks,” Jane begged.

“I’ll drink to that!” Greg shouted. “Denny, you still with us? Hey, somebody take his pulse.”

Dennis’s bloodshot eyes glanced up from his empty stein. “Get the damn bill,” he snapped at the young man.

Sandy’s azure eyes glistened.

*

She closed the door behind herself and shuffled off her work shirt and jeans and stepped into his naked embrace. No, he shouldn’t have taken her hand at the movie. Just as he shouldn’t have put his arm around her walking back to campus. Just as he shouldn’t have kissed her in the stairwell. Because she was not just a good friend but a good friend’s girl. He hadn’t planned on any of it. But still it had happened. Whatever that meant. “Just this once,” he promised.

“Just this once,” she echoed.

pencil

“After graduating from high school in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, I studied literature and writing at UW-Madison, where I eventually earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. Since then I have been working as a professional librarian at Ohio University and honing my fiction craft in my spare time.” E-mail: olsondl[at]verizon.net.