It was not that Tanyon Shotter was absolutely certain that he would not see his wife Keara again, but that did seem to be the unspoken agreement between them as she gave him a cold peck on the cheek in the early Holy Saturday sunshine of her parents’ Wellesley driveway.

It reminded him of that episode of The Brady Bunch where the boys leave a trail of popcorn so that they don’t get lost in a Hawaiian forest, only to end up meeting Vincent Price in a cave.

He knew, of course, that he’d see her again in some capacity. Probably in a legal one, which worried him. But he was fairly certain that they would never come together in the manner of a husband and wife reuniting after a long day, with any of a number of pet names lining themselves up at the front of Tanyon’s mind, waiting to see what positive effect they might have on his wife. The creation and dissemination of these stockpiled names had become a sort of hobby for Tanyon. As he pulled Keara’s bags from the trunk of his still-idling Ford Mustang—a mid-life crisis car purchased a half dozen or so years before a mid-life crisis normally sets in—he reflected on some of his attempts to come up with a core group of honorifics that were supposed to become part of their daily back-and-forth. These names, he felt, need not have been all that serious, and they might even work better the more embarrassing they were. Playful names, he thought, were ideal—names that any one person only ever said to any other in private, beyond the hearing of a third party. Like a secret word that let you into a club made up of two members.

“Let’s see…there were the early stalwarts—Love, Sweets, Sugar. Very awkward, that Sugar one.” He looked up from his work to see Keara’s parents frozen in their familiar, judgmental American Gothic-style pose behind their dining room window, as though they had taken their places in the standing-room-only section at some kind of athletic contest.

“Ugh. Bad time. Bad time all around. Maybe I should wave to them?”

He started to raise his right hand, and then let it fall.

“That might make them enjoy themselves more,” he thought.

***

“I had tried to spice it up. It was a concerted effort. Legitimately. At the therapist’s suggestion. ‘Be as dirty as you can, be a cave man. Be cave lovers.’ Right. What a disaster that was. I guess that is why we are here now. But these things are rarely the result of a single moment. Even if everything does seem to crystallize in that moment.”

He had come home from the office early, having made some vague excuse to cancel his only post-noon consultation. Mrs. Faraguana was a hypochondriac anyway, she’d simply return the following weekday afternoon, like she normally did.

He picked up two dozen snapdragons at his regular Beacon Hill florist’s, a shop he visited often enough in his amends-making efforts that all the clerks knew his name, and would greet him as soon as he walked through the door wearing his normal look of apprehension as to what arrangement might work best.

“It’s getting to the point that I’m like Norm on Cheers,” he thought one night, after exchanging greetings with a newly hired clerk, who nonetheless knew him at first sight. He liked the idea of snapdragons, not only because Keara had once stated, back in college, that they were among her favorites—and because he’d get points for remembering that—but also because he appreciated the floral irony, and was confident that his wife would not pick up on it.

“I deserve a little joke. She does snap at me a lot. True, she doesn’t exactly breathe fire, but there are times when I wonder if she might.”

After the florist’s, it was on to a Charles Street market where he secured several cuts of filet mignon, three twice baked potatoes, and an assortment of asparagus glazes so that he could make his trademark roasted spears. He spent an unduly amount of time in the wine section trying to find a Cabernet that was both zesty and mellow, and then returned to his Rowes Wharf apartment. Years before it had been selected as one of Boston’s fifty best homes by Architectural Digest, a citation that he thought would please his wife, but only made her cry instead.

Still, he felt that his Cabernet selection would go over well. Keara had commented on a couple reviews in Wine Spectator a few weeks ago, post-coitus—“my once-a-month trip to the farmer’s market,” as Tanyon thought of it. He poured two glasses of wine and set one on his nightstand, and one on hers. He felt his courage growing. “Perhaps tonight—if all goes as planned—I’ll kick it up a notch. Maybe that therapist is on to something after all.”

He vacuumed the apartment, did the laundry, cleaned all the sinks, and even de-limed the shower head, which gave him a satisfaction akin to completing an extra credit assignment. And then he readied the bedroom DVD player with one of their favorite discs, and made a path, of sorts, with the snapdragons, placing one after another, from the front door to the bedroom. He felt a little silly doing this, and it reminded him of that episode of The Brady Bunch where the boys leave a trail of popcorn so that they don’t get lost in a Hawaiian forest, only to end up meeting Vincent Price in a cave.

“Ha. I wonder what that therapist of ours would make of that imagery. Maybe she’d just say sometimes a man in a cave is just a man in a cave. I don’t think I’ll tell her all the same though.”

Was this the right time to premiere his latest honorific? Could there be a better time? A worse time? Was the best and worst time one and the same? If so, should he just go for it?

As a final preparation he rounded up the dozen or so rusticated brown-copper votive holders that they kept in an antique midshipman’s chest, and equipped each with a squat candle, placing them at paced-off intervals alongside his snapdragon path. With the family room aglow, and his work complete, he went to the window and savored the dusk as the day’s last rays of sun spangled the harbor.

Keara arrived and set out on her husband’s path. She found Tanyon in the bedroom in his lightest, most sheer dressing gown. He moved to kiss her, but she had already bent down to remove her shoes, and his lips deflected off of her shoulder. He pressed play on the DVD player, and the pleasing voice of Rod Serling filled the room. They had watched a Twilight Zone marathon at the end of their first date in college, back when it was the three of them more often than it was just the two of them. But it was only the two of them now, plus Rod Serling, and Burgess Meredith, who had emerged from the vault beneath the bank where he worked, to find that he was the only man left on earth.

“I think this “Time Enough at Last” episode is my favorite,” Tanyon said as Keara swirled some of the Cabernet around her mouth.

“You would.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, the Burgess Meredith character is bookish, like you. And his wife—who dies, of course—is cold. As you like to imagine that I am.”

“That’s not true. Not at all. It’s just not true.” He paused and considered his options. Was this the right time to premiere his latest honorific? Could there be a better time? A worse time? Was the best and worst time one and the same? If so, should he just go for it?

He stood up from the bed and cupped his hands inside the lapels of his lightly-cinched dressing gown. He took a deep intake of breath, and separated himself from his robe, with a little shimmy of his left foot. He stood there naked before her—like a cave man—but this was not his great surprise.

“Why, that’s not true at all,” he resumed. “That’s just not true. Angel Tits.”

After making up the couch in the living room, he stood once more by the window. He pressed his head against it and felt a draft coming through, but it didn’t really bother him now that he had his heavier robe on. He could see the airport across the harbor. A plane landed. A plane took off. Three hundred yards away. Four hundred. Five at the most. He measured in football fields. He tried to count the blackened husks docked in the Charlestown marina. Some boats looked bigger than other boats, but they probably weren’t much bigger.

***

He wasn’t sure what to do next as he pulled out of the driveway of his in-laws, fighting the urge to flip them off.

“Well, I’m a free man now. With the whole weekend in front of me. What does a Boston bachelor do with two full days at his disposal?”

He could already feel his forced enthusiasm starting to wane. The last place he wanted to be was at home. He was shocked though at his own impetuousness as he found himself on I-95 South, bound for Manhattan to hit up some of his favorite Greenwich Village record shops. It would kill the day, and provide a nice surge of nostalgia harkening back to those times when he would pester his father to put off their yard work so that they could leave Ridgefield, Connecticut behind for the amped-up pace and pulse of New York.

Some of his fondest memories involved listening to old vinyl records by Illinois Jacquet, Don Byas, and Ben Webster—the great, stomping tenor men—in closet-sized record shops on MacDougal Street, as his father flipped through the racks of bebop and stride pianists, turning to his son and holding up his latest, greatest find whenever he came upon an Art Tatum or Earl Hines LP that he didn’t already own.

Tanyon liked that his father was a piano aficionado, and he was more of a tenor buff. It was as though they’d be able to harmonize with each other in some imaginary band—were either of them able to play their favorite instrument—rather than compete for the same spot. Sometimes he thought of the happier days of his marriage as Coltrane in his mid-fifties Prestige years, where everything was soulful and rhythmic; now, it was like mid-sixties Coltrane, when everything went atonal.

Many of the shops that he used to visit with his father were still in business, which both relaxed and excited him. “This is a pretty fine day after all,” he thought, pleased that the present had not completely dislodged the past. He bought enough records and CDs to fill the cloth bag in the trunk which he usually used when he went off on one of his wine buying excursions to his favorite shop on the Cape, and resumed his journey.

***

It was typical of him to think that the disassembling of his marriage had more to do with him than with his wife. There had been a period of heavy drinking—“guilt fallout,” as he put it, while Keara was away for a couple weeks in Milan. These temporary separations usually served to rejuvenate them, but in this instance, the reason for Keara’s trip was more in line of a meditative mission—specifically, some time apart to give some final thoughts to starting a family, an issue they had gone back and forth on, given Keara’s unhappy girlhood and an uncle who may or may not have—well, they weren’t exactly sure what he may or may not have done. Spotty details would sometimes be dragged to the surface—thanks to the same therapist who had hit upon the less-than-brilliant “be a cave man” strategy—but neither Tanyon nor Keara knew what to think, or what they should do.
“What if it’s a girl and I’m overly possessive? And too protective, and I don’t let her live her own life? And beyond messing up a child’s life, I’ll make you resent me too, Tanyon. And sometimes I already feel like it’s so hard to connect, to be part of something that’s more than just myself. I can’t even get the myself part right.”

It hadn’t been his intention to do so, but when he saw the ivy and the creepers that encrusted the edges of a sign heralding one of the Cape’s most idyllic spots, the bucolic temptation proved too great to resist.

He’d try to be agreeable. “I feel the same way. Like it’s impossible, sometimes, for me to be a part of something else either.”

This technique was among his least successful, and he never understood why lines of this nature would cause his wife to immediately race from his presence, like the sight of him was about to cause her to combust.

He wondered what each of them would have done if they had not ended up with the other. Keara was intelligent and attractive enough that he would have expected that she would have eventually met someone, the issues from her past notwithstanding. As for himself—there was Sindy back in Connecticut, but there was also the matter of what he believed that he and Keara had done to her. But back in college, he bounced back and forth between the two women, unsure who he ought to commit to. Not that he ever thought of himself as a philanderer. It was, simply, he believed, how young people lived at the time.

“No harm, no foul. So long as you’re honest with everyone.”

And he had been.

***

While Keara was in Italy, Tanyon took several trips of his own to Falmouth and his favorite wine shop, intent on stocking up the wine cellar he had had custom-built in the basement. On his way back on the day before Keara came home, he stopped at a forest preserve near Sandwich. It hadn’t been his intention to do so, but when he saw the ivy and the creepers that encrusted the edges of a sign heralding one of the Cape’s most idyllic spots, the bucolic temptation proved too great to resist.

As the car rolled to a stop atop a bed of nettles and auburn-tinged moss that served as the unofficial parking lot, Tanyon looked at his watch and saw that the sun would soon be setting. He decided to take one of his bottles of newly purchased ‘89 Bordeaux and trudge out to the coast and see the day off in style.

The shoreline proved to be further away than he had expected, but he could hear the sound of waves meeting rocks somewhere off in the distance as he padded along in the forest. He liked that there was sand amidst the carpet of pine needles, like he was at the very spot where two ecosystems came together. But he could no more find the shore than he could refrain from tucking into the wine as he walked, and eventually he had to retreat back to the car before he ran out of light or fell over.

He didn’t like admitting that he was drunk any more than he liked thinking about his upcoming discussion with his wife about the children they were going to or not going to have. The only thing of which he was sure was that it would feel cathartic to turn his car around in this darkened forest of a parking lot and gun it back towards the main road.

Which is exactly what he did—hitting a deer in the process, and knocking himself unconscious when the head of the animal penetrated the windshield. A state cop told him the next morning that he was lucky it wasn’t a buck.

“This time of year, with those antlers of theirs, they can impale you in a car like this. What were you doing up here anyway?”

He had made sure to get rid of the empty wine bottle by throwing it in the hollow beneath an overturned tree.

“I was thinking about a girl,” he answered.

“Ha. Aren’t we all, buddy…”

***

He figured that if anyone should be blamed, it was probably Duke Ellington, who had a way of making him feel braver than he knew he really was. His official reason to head further south and stop off in Fairfield County was to visit his father, and share his new bounty of jazz albums. The old man would get a kick out of some fresh sounds. But he knew he wouldn’t be going by the house, because he understood that an unannounced visit would tip off his father that something was wrong. And when his father knew that something was wrong, Tanyon only ever felt guilty, because he knew how much his father would worry.

He originally supposed, as he drove through Harlem, that he would simply return to the apartment at Rowes Wharf, worn out from his long day and tired enough that he’d be able to fall asleep without hours’ worth of effort. He called himself an idiot—out loud, even—when his thoughts turned to hoping that Keara might have changed her mind, and was now at the apartment, waiting for him, worried. But it was Duke Ellington—and, more specifically, Paul Gonsalves—that settled it.

There was always something about Ellington’s performance from the 1956 Newport Festival that pumped him up. He had found a remastered CD set in one of the Greenwich Village shops, which was now cranking on the stereo. Usually he hated taking the Merritt Parkway, because he couldn’t stand the rhythmic clicks that would emanate from beneath the car when the tires passed over each segment of the road—it was like driving over a bunch of LEGOs that had been stuck together.

But now, he noticed that the clicks seemed timed to fall between the beats of Sam Woodyard’s drums on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” like an extra accent. As tenor man Paul Gonsalves began to blow his eighth chorus of his famous twenty-seven bar solo, Tanyon knew that he was going not to Ridgefield but to nearby Wilton to see Sindy, and offer something in the way of an apology for cutting her out of a business plan—however unintentionally—that had set Tanyon and Keara up for life—a life they were no longer to share together.

He never questioned how much he owed Sindy, and the good times with Keara were always undercut by a concern that someone else had helped put them in their particular situation. To be fair, he wasn’t exactly sure that the truffle idea was not mostly his own. He knew it was not Keara’s, although it was her father—and a few investment group friends—who put up a lot of the money to get them started.

Tanyon’s own father had a degree in agricultural engineering, a passion which—like jazz—he passed along to his son. He was also one of those knockabout inventors—the kind that legitimate inventors sometimes branded as a “quack”—who spent endless hours tinkering with formulas in hopes of coming up with some radical new food source or beverage that would yield amazing benefits for the human race, and give him something to shoot the bull about with his friends at one of his clubs.

At Tufts, Tanyon continued on in his father’s tradition, and thought, after joining an amateur inventor workshop, that maybe he could surprise the old man with a patent of his own—some wrinkle on a new way to make wine, maybe. He spent a lot of long afternoons in Bray Laboratory, where he eventually met Sindy, a gifted biomedical student who had actually been a neighbor of sorts in their pre-college days, although neither of them knew it at the time. She had more know-how than he did, and understood what he meant when he discussed his rather crude ideas about making wine out of something besides grapes. Like out of mushrooms, something that would offer health benefits beyond those normally associated with wine. He remembered reading that fungi can be a deterrent to breast cancer, which had claimed his mother halfway through high school, and turned his father into a perpetual tinkerer, wisher, dreamer—anything that might take his thoughts away from his pain.

“I’m sure I can help you come up with something,” she had said. “Although I wouldn’t exactly be sweating if I were Ernest or Julio Gallo.”

***

They worked on the idea over the next several years, while Tanyon wondered if he was meant to be with Keara or Sindy. He was prone to thinking in fatalistic terms, as though some things were simply going to happen, whether he wished them to or not. Sindy was the less guarded of the pair. She had a nonchalance to her that Tanyon envied, like she could just pick up and leave anything behind, if it no longer suited her or no longer brought her pleasure, or meaning. Keara was more rigid, but she committed more deeply, even when it hurt her, and Tanyon thought that he was probably the kind of person whom other people had an easy time leaving, so maybe Keara was best for him. But then he’d pick up in the lab again with Sindy, and he’d find some counter-argument to move him back in the other direction, a thought process he later blamed on the caprices of youth.

A few overly bored TAs became involved in hammering out a formula that might work, and finally hit on one that went off to a testing lab. It looked like a small success had been achieved, and the project, seemingly, came to an end. But months later, reports came back from the lab that they might really have something here. And then 60 Minutes just happened to run a piece on the salutary effects of black truffles—glorified mushrooms, of a sort—and Tanyon was able to find some investors in a small black truffle farm, led by Keara’s father, and the formula was pressed into service.

Six years later, Tanyon and Keara had a cash windfall on their hands, having introduced a new fad in wine circles that was the source of a number of feature pieces in the leading magazines, garnering further investments from different sectors of the health, wine, and biomedical industries. Sindy, meanwhile, was working as a real estate agent in her hometown of Wilton.

Whenever Tanyon would ask Keara about cutting Sindy in, his wife would say that she had already tried, but to no avail. And then she would often begin to cry, which confused Tanyon greatly, so he would let the matter drop and try to find something less upsetting to talk about. Perhaps he could make it right by Sindy at some point in the future, when he and Keara were in a better position as husband and wife. Or afterwards.

***

He drove through the center of Wilton on the lookout for the agency where he had read online that Sindy worked. “I wonder if it’s very depressing,” he thought, “showing houses to strangers that your friends used to live in.”

He looked back at her, unsure whether she had stopped talking or whether her words had been scattered by the breeze that had him reaching deeper into his pockets.

He was also hard at work on his opening line. Naturally, he didn’t want to come across as a stalker; nor did he want to use anything as trite as saying that he had been home to visit his father, and now, after all of these years, he had decided it was prime time for a visit with his old chum—to say nothing of the money she must have known she had a right to, and his wife’s confusing claims that she had tried to make things right.

He parked a little ways down the road so that he could sit in the car for a few minutes and gather himself. The agency was about thirty yards up the street. But just as he had finalized his opening line and was starting to get out of the car, there was a knock on the passenger side window. It was Sindy, who opened the door and sat down as though he had explicitly come to pick her up.

“I think we should probably talk.”

“What on earth…I mean…”

“I was at the diner down the street picking up lunch for the office. Keara had phoned and said you might be stopping by. You look good by the way.”

“Um…okay. That’s just odd. The thing about my wife. Not the looks thing. Same to you, I mean.”

“Let me just drop this off inside and tell them that I’m going to be out for a little while.”

“Okay.”

He thought about backing out and making a break for Boston—or maybe his father’s—but he figured that he probably deserved whatever he had coming to him.

***

She had him drive to Weir Farm, a spot he knew from childhood field trips. It was a home for several generations of artists, as well as a working farm. The entire notion of a farm—given the whole truffle business—made him even more ill at ease.

“You’re fidgeting something awful, Tan. I’m the one who ought to be anxious.”

“Um…alright. If you say so. I feel like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole, in a manner of speaking. I don’t know what you know. More than I would have ever guessed, apparently. So maybe this is redundant. My wife left me today—formally, that is. And I don’t know what the hell I’m doing driving all over the Northeast Corridor. And now I’m walking around with a bunch of goats and geese by my side with a former girlfriend of sorts, and my wife’s erstwhile best friend, whom I basically screwed in more ways than one and I’m just so sorry…And you appear disturbingly clued in. I tried to talk about you with Keara, but…”

“But I wouldn’t take anything. Financially.”

“Yes. But if you ever change your mind…God. I sound like an idiot. Even with the divorce. I’m sure we can work out something. But I’m glad that at least one friendship was saved. It’s just like Keara not to have told me though. We don’t really talk anymore. I don’t expect that we ever will again, in any real sense. There will be lawyers, of course. They’ll talk.”

“Your wife loves you very much, Tan…”

Her voice began to trail off as his eyes scanned over a nearby pond, where several painted turtles clustered on a thick branch that jutted out of the water. He looked back at her, unsure whether she had stopped talking or whether her words had been scattered by the breeze that had him reaching deeper into his pockets.

“I’m not sure what you’d call it. I started thinking that not having kids was a way to leave herself an exit, if you will. From us. From whatever we were.”

“Or maybe it was a way to keep your relationship with her different from your relationship with me.”

“Ha. That’s just odd. Because not having a kid—“

“A daughter.”

“Fine, a daughter. Or a son. Either one. You can’t have a combo.”

He didn’t know why he had said something so boorish and immediately lowered his voice.

“Sorry. Bad joke.”
“No. That’s not what I mean. Please don’t hate Keara for this.”

She grabbed his forearm and he could feel her nails through his coat. She was shaking and trying not to cry, with some degree of success. This made Tanyon panic all the more. Her pain was obvious, but she had some dominion over it, so it must have been a pain she had lived with for a long time, something she had worked at mastering.

“I didn’t tell you. I came here. Keara knew. But I didn’t want to complicate things. I was in my own head and I couldn’t get out. And you two were starting out. And I felt…betrayed. Not because of the money or anything like that. But because I knew you had made up your mind. And then Keara got in touch a few months back, and just started crying into the phone about how you were growing apart, and about having kids, and about…”

“About what?”

“About the daughter you already had.”

“I have a daughter?”

“You…had a daughter.”

He turned to vomit into the pond, and succeeded in merely retching instead—having not eaten all day—dispatching the turtles back into the water.

***

“What do you want?”

“I want to talk to my wife.”

“Tanyon…it’s the middle of the night. Sleep it off. I’ll ask her to call you tomorrow.”

He was not surprised that his mother-in-law sounded as alert as she did, never mind that it was quarter-of-three in the morning. She was always alert, like some sentinel looking over her daughter so that he could not cause her harm.

“Look…if she doesn’t want to talk now…just tell her I’m on the road. Back from Connecticut. Promise me you’ll tell her that. Tonight.”

“I don’t think she needs to know that you’re on your way home from visiting your father.”

He could tell that he only had a sentence or two left in him.

“I was not visiting my father. Please. Tell her.”

He hung up and tried to concentrate on the road. He didn’t know when he would be home. Probably after daybreak. It didn’t matter.

He wondered if he was being overdramatic by crying for someone he never knew, or if the very concept of a stillborn child mitigated against full-blown tragedy. It wasn’t like he had some three-year-old daughter die on him, one whom he—or someone—had gotten to know. And then he worried if he was in some kind of violation of morality by trying not to cry. His head felt heavy, and he considered that maybe nodding off wouldn’t be so bad after all. He went long stretches without seeing another car.

The Ellington CD was still in the player. When Tanyon turned it on, Paul Gonsalves resumed his solo. Tanyon knew it by heart. Gonsalves was halfway through. Thirteen and a half bars to go. Tanyon kept the volume down low, simmering the music. When Gonsalves wrapped up bar number twenty-seven, he cued up the beginning of the track once more. Again and again and again—he didn’t think he’d be able to get home any other way.

It was near five when he stumbled into his apartment. Darkness. He put his cell phone down on the living room table and saw a small piece of paper, which he gently collected and turned around in his fingers, as though he were filtering out any potential bad contents. He went towards the window, where there was a vague stream of light. A draft was coming through again, but it felt good against his forehead as he looked down at the missive that was probably some long-forgotten grocery list or one of the occasional notes he wrote to himself.

It was in Keara’s hand: Come to bed. Angel dick.

He could see the airport across the harbor. A plane landed. A plane took off. Three hundred yards away. Four hundred. Five at the most. He measured in football fields. He tried to count the blackened husks docked in the Charlestown marina. Some boats looked bigger than other boats, but they probably weren’t much bigger.

Colin Fleming is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe and The New York Times Book Review. His fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Texas Review, Slice Magazine and The Iowa Review, among other publications.

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