Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce: Partisans

When I was younger I thought love was the great meal of life and friendship was just garnish – a nice chutney served with the shrimp curry.

Divorce changed all that.

Of course it taught me the volatility and fragility of love – it was more like a blown-glass Christmas ornament filled with nitro-glycerine. I was still shuffling through the burnt shards. But I also learned some lessons about friendship. My friends became my allies, my co-conspirators, my partisans … not to mention my patrons and my landlords. They offered moral support. I remember one them snooping my ex-wife’s house on his way out to a job in ‘Sconset. “It’s still a pig-sty in there,” he cackled. “She’s the slob, buddy! I even checked the basement. You can still see laundry mountain down there.”

One of them gave me not one but two places to live, both at impossibly low rents. I could never have stayed on the island without his generosity.

Then there was Byron Clark. I had seen him for years – at poetry readings, out surfing on big days, working on job sites. I hitched the occasional ride in his Cessna. But we only became friends after the divorce. He had just gone through his own, a much more harrowing separation than mine, complete with public tantrums and alcoholic blackouts. We went out to dinner and told our war stories (he could always top me); found me painting jobs, dragged me out in the ocean when he knew I needed it, gave me interesting new authors to read (Murakami, Bolano), loaned me small amounts of money when I was short.

When a customer went bankrupt owning me ten thousand dollars, Byron’s kindness was put to a more severe test.

I read about the bankruptcy in the local paper – the guy never even called. I had been checking my mailbox every day, measuring the time it would take the check to arrive and clear against the suffocating weight of my obligations. I had thought about calling him, but those phone calls were excruciating. I hated badgering people for money.

Well, now I wouldn’t have to.

But the obligations remained: car payment, rent, IRS, State tax, insurance, liability, workman’s comp., credit card bills, hospital bills from an emergency room visit … The ten thousand dollars would have barely covered it. I’d already sent the check to the State of Mass, crazily certain the check would arrive that day. But of course it didn’t. That one was going to bounce, there was nothing I could do about it. Over a thousand dollars was felony fraud in this state. I could wind up in jail.

I spent hours pawing through my circumstances, my jobs and customers, my family and friends, debts I could cash in, obligations I could stall, looking for a solution. It was like rummaging through the junk drawer in my kitchen for the car keys. The only real question was, how many times would you dump it out and sort through the putty knives and stamps and defunct cell-phone chargers before you accepted that the keys weren’t there? Still, the fact was, sometimes you did find them on the fourth or the tenth attempt, after looking everywhere else, after you’d already given up, doing it by rote, just to be doing something so you wouldn’t have to admit the truth and make the loss official. And there they were, under the stack of credit card offers and old shopping lists, behind the packing tape and the throwaway camera you never took in to get developed. There they were, somehow, as if someone was playing a trick on you, a practical joke they’d decided wasn’t funny anymore. There they were.

So I kept searching. An advance on the Keller job? But that wasn’t supposed to start until Spring. Or the Silverstein job? But they were living here and they’d expect me there every day. That was fine, but the money wasn’t enough. I’d have to start at least three jobs and lay off people at the same time. I couldn’t afford to pay anyone anything. I could conceivably get first checks from Foley and Landau but the Foleys were here all winter and the Landau’s caretaker would be checking up daily, and he’d be delighted to bust me with the owners if I wasn’t on the job.

Finally I got in the car and started driving, the trees on either side of Milestone Road tumbling by in a blur. I thought of Robin Hood, hiding in the forest. There was nowhere to hide here. What was I going to do? Live in a tent? I hated camping and I’d be busted the first night anyway. I thought of running away, just buying a boat ticket and driving west. But I’d thought that a million times and the answer was always the same. You couldn’t do it without money. You couldn’t start fresh somewhere with nothing. It was a child’s fantasy.

But I couldn’t make this work. I couldn’t be on all those jobs simultaneously, with just two guys. Still, I added it up: if I got all the checks this week, or next week at the latest, if I could convince the Kellers to let me start early, that would just cover my outstanding obligations. No, I’d still be about twenty-five hundred shy. And that was only until the first week’s wages were due; and then I’d have no more money from anyone until I got to the half-way mark on some job. Anyway, I was up to my limit on my charge at Marine; how was I supposed to buy the materials for three new jobs at once? That was around fifteen hundred bucks right there. I added it up. I needed six thousand dollars to survive this siege. Not even to survive it, just to get to the next onslaught. But if my crew would agree to wait for their checks until I got the next checks from the owners, and everyone agreed to let me start, and paid me quickly … no, no, no. No good, with the materials and the IRS and rent, you can’t forget about the rent, I was still at least a thousand dollars in the red. And I needed some money to live on – food and gas. Another grand? Would that do it? Say it would: that meant he had to find six thousand dollars -- by tomorrow.

I was all the way to ‘Sconset when the answer came to me, discovered like the keys in the junk drawer. It wasn’t even a surprise, as if some part of you knew they were there all along. There was only one place to go, only one person I could turn to at this moment.

I climbed into his car and started the long drive to Byron Clark’s house in Madaket.

Driving west, I remembered helping Byron clear out his parents’ house after they died. It was packed with thirty years’ accumulation of pack-rat trash: collections of animal skulls and fishing lures, mold-rotted books and antique jam jars, bales of twine and barbed wire, lobster pots and scallop boxes, check-books and unopened bills from the nineteen sixties, lampshades and chair cushions, broken radios, and unraveling wicker. After a week of ten hour days we were able to see the floor. When the Thomas Tompion grandfather clock and the Tony Sarg puzzles had been taken to the auction house and everything else had been carted to the dump, the cleaning had begun. The once-white walls were stained a toxic amber from decades of cigarette smoke; they were black from mold where the roof leaked. We wore vapor masks and rubber gloves and scrubbed the place for another week. Jack’s brother never volunteered to help; neither did anyone else.

It made sense: Byron and I were the real brothers. He’d probably already know about my situation, tonight – news moved across the island like strep throat through an elementary school.

I was rolling past the crowded subdivision of Tristram’s Landing, with its ugly houses packed tight together in concentric circles, cut by the creeks. I remembered when there was nothing but dune grass here. Change was always for the worse on Nantucket. The bulky shadows swept past. Most of the houses were dark. These were summer people, they showed up for a week or a month a year.

I had never borrowed this much money from Byron before. More importantly, I had never asked for a loan without knowing when I’d be able to pay it back. And I’d never been this desperate, driving too fast with rage and dread self-loathing climbing my throat as I took a turn too wide and the wheels shuddered against the jumbled dirty snow on the shoulder. These curves were deceptive. I eased back to forty miles an hour. Soon I was crossing Millie’s bridge, turning onto the ruts and craters of Vermont Avenue.

The lights were on in Byron’s beach shack. I parked and sat in the car, listening to the surf and the faint sound of Van Morrison from Byron’s house, carried on the wind. Blue Money; how appropriate. I had no idea what he was going to say, or how I was going to begin.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to say anything.

Byron came to the door in sweatpants and an old Toscana t-shirt. The wood stove was going and the little house was warm. There was a faint smell of varnish. Van was singing Cleaning Windows, now. Maybe it was a message; people always needed their windows cleaned.

Byron pulled me into a bear hug and said “Come in .Have a drink. Tell me how much you need.”

“No, look, I didn’t -- ”

He pulled me inside. “Hey, relax, check yourself out. It has to be money, unless you have something incurable, and I can’t help with that.” He kicked the door closed with his foot and stared at me. “You’re not sick?”

“No. I mean, I don’t know. I hope not.”

“Then I have an idea. Let’s get out of here. I’ve been working this bird feeder all night. I was just getting some sealer on it. If we move we can get to the Box before it closes.”

I explained the situation as we rode back to town. I was finishing as we turned away from the Stop& Shop into the Chicken Box parking lot: “So I need five thousand dollars and I have no idea when I’ll be able to pay it back.”

Byron laughed. “Don’t stop there – really sell me. Say you’ll gamble it all away at Mohegan Sun and then avoid me like I was contagious for the next five years.”

“No man, come on, you know there’s no way -- ”

Byron punched me on the arm, “I’m kidding. Relax. Gentleman’s rule: retain your sense of humor under duress.”

I let out a long breath. “Oh yeah – I remember those rules. Your Dad was great. Borderline psychotic – but great.”

“And he really was a gentleman, in his own way. He never broke his own rules. Don’t argue about politics. Pick up the tab. Notice small improvements. Remember birthdays. Call home. Walk the dog. “

“Help your friends.”

Byron nodded. “Treat them like family. Because they are.”

He leaned over and pulled his checkbook out of his pocket, pulled a pen from the ashtray, scribbled a check, tore it off, handed it over.

I was confused. “This is for seventy-five hundred dollars.”

“That was one of my Dad’s best rules: a gentleman never asks for as much as he needs.”

I felt a sudden surge of emotion burning my face, making my eyes prickle.

But that was another Clark rule: maintain your composure.

“Thank you,” I said

Byron cuffed me lightly on the head, “Come on. Let’s shoot some pool and have a beer. You’re buying.”

And so I survived another crisis; and I eventually paid Byron back. None of my old lovers would have been willing to help – most of them wouldn’t even have returned my phone call. But the friends stuck with me. Some helped with money, like Byron, some helped me move, some just listened -- and agreed with me.

“I always hated that bitch,” one of them said. “I thought you’d never get free.”

I didn’t point out that I’d been dumped; or that I felt more exiled than liberated. But it was good to have someone on my side. These were my allies, my unit, my comrades in arms, my partisans. Some well-meaning acquaintance told me “It takes a village to survive a divorce.”

And I thought to myself – keep your village.

I have a platoon.

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