Social Security office. God, how she hated that place. How they put you through questioning — just short of frisking. All those overweight men in what were probably uniforms from a secondhand costume shop. They leered officiously. Probably got turned down at the Police Academy and this was where they landed. She could imagine a dumpy, pregnant wife at home tossing laundry on the bed, leaving it unfolded, then whisking it on the floor to let her rent-a-cop husband sift through for clean underwear.
Those guys went through her purse, tampons and all, then waved her through that metal detector and, pointing to a computer screen where she tapped, tapped, tapped and finally got a number, then headed out to all those chairs, the only one between old folks.
“What brings you here?” the guy to her left asked.
Damned inane prattle in public places.
“A woman like you can’t be old enough for Social Security.”
He was not yet elderly, didn’t smell, dressed smartly, shoes polished. What brings you here? As if he really wanted to know.
“My first time,” she said, aiming to deflect.
That shut him up for a while.
“My wife passed a month ago,” he said. “They called me in here. Something about her monthly payment.”
Out of nowhere, she blurted, “Me, too.”
“Oh, yes. The Me Too movement. Tragic.”
She should let that ride, kind of funny she guessed, but … “No, my husband died, too. Payments.”
A quick, gentle touch on her shoulder. Kind gesture.
She had always known him as Wally, but not long after they began dating, he insisted on Wallace. This was before she got to know him well and thought he might be trying to pull something on people, make him into someone he wasn’t. She even thought he looked like a Wally, that sculpted face and bushy hair. And what a surprise when he approached her in the high school hallway, wanting to know if he could walk her to class.
“You’re not in my class,” she shot back, more shocked than surprised that he might come on like that.
“Mine is just down the hall.”
She couldn’t focus in class, the room first going wavy, followed by a buzzing she couldn’t explain.
Then after two or three weeks when everyone knew them as “a couple,” came the catty jabs — “How’d you manage to land Wally?” “I guess you two must be hitting it off.” “Strange.” She thought of them as taunts, a direct reference to her unworthiness. And then his name change with no one taunting him about how pretentious it sounded. He even insisted on the name change under his yearbook picture. No one said a blessed word. Wasn’t that about the time they began drinking, with Wallace easily procuring beer and wine from “someone I know”? Not drinking too much just yet. She thought of those days as their happy times. Never any quarrels, not until marriage. But still, happy drinking days.
She could not get pregnant. Tests showed Wallace lacked sperm potency. And then the adoption. They were contacted suddenly by the state agency. Would they be interested? The baby was two days old, mixed race parents they were told. They picked her up and drove back happily, equipped with only the essential baby stuff. With Wallace driving, the baby made barely a peep, wrapped in a blanket her mother crafted, pink and blue.
She called her parents — his were not the least bit interested — and they arrived within several hours. Her father’s face shone since the baby girl was given his middle name, Jordan. Drinks all around.
Four days later the birth mother changed her mind and wanted to keep the child. No legal recourse. Baby Jordan went away. And, at least for her, so did part of their marriage. The immediate love for that child snatched from them.
Unlike at most deli counters where the numbers flashed clearly on a monitor saying “Now Serving,” the numbers were announced through a garbled public address system that most people couldn’t make out, looking at the paper numbers in their hands. The kind man to her left apparently had better hearing than she, since he heard each number clearly.
“My number is four ahead of you,” he said, noting hers, as she kept looking at the flimsy slip of paper in her hand, turning it over and over.
She had to admit he cast a calming influence over her, taking away most of the nervous annoyance she’d been put through when entering.
“I guess we’re in for a long wait,” she said.
“I’m certain our wait will eventually prove worthwhile.”
Not only were his penny loafers polished to a cordovan sheen, but she detected a manicure — his nails clear and buffed. The way he spoke was even elegant. She hadn’t looked at him full-on, and when she did, his eyes gave him away, the same eyes she had seen in her own mirror, even weeks before Wallace’s death, when they both knew the inevitable lay before them.
“How did it happen?” she asked, wishing she could retract that startling question.
“How what happened?”
“Your wife’s death.”
“Oh, my dear, you are too young to ask the question that comes from your own grief. The thought of your husband’s passing. I wish I could help.”
“Sorry that I asked.” Yet she was not.
She might be in another of her dreams when she walks from room to room in some large house, no one there, searching for someone, anyone, to talk to, hallway after hallway, finding no one. Had she finally awakened?
“You are a brave one,” he said, “with the courage to ask and seek.”
A person walked in front of them, heading to one of many windows where employees sat, attending to people with numbers in their hands.
“We’ve a long wait,” he said. “Perhaps time to talk.”
He asked her to speak first about her husband’s death, but she deferred to him. He said she was his third wife. He was not particularly proud that he’d had two wives before her, but as he thought back upon that, especially since her passing, he wouldn’t have wanted things any other way. He said he learned much from his first two marriages. Did she understand that? She nodded, thinking of the times she had wanted out of her marriage, especially before his disability and how she beat herself up with guilt, not actually wanting to be his caretaker, yet hoping she could love him more because of it. (When it came time for her to speak, should she go into all that?)
The man and his wife had been married fifteen years, both retired, at the time of her death, adding, as he swept his arm around the room, that social security payments kept them comfortable, not wealthy, mind you, but, along with careful investments and savings, content financially.
He said it was cancer. She lingered. As he paused, she wondered if he might show emotion, his tapping foot on the floor perhaps an indication.
“Number forty-seven,” from the overhead speakers.
Everyone looked at the number in hand. Someone down the way got up, walked to a window.
Again he said, “We’ve a long wait.”
Still nothing about his occupation/vocation. “What did you do for a living?” she asked.
“A first-rate acting teacher and second-rate actor.”
But who were the two wives and what became of them? “Did you act in movies?”
“Precious few. Only bit parts. My career dried up. Took to teaching, where I met my third wife, the one recently deceased.”
He was taking her into what must have been the intriguing story of his life, perhaps a place she needed to go at that moment. “How did you get started in acting?”
“At age fifteen I spent one summer in Paris and came back wearing a beret at school, much to the derision and delight of my classmates. The next summer I went to Scotland and came back wearing a tam o’ shanter. Same reaction. That was when I first began playing roles. Loved the attention. Sought it from then on.”
“My husband played a role when he went from Wally to Wallace. Funny and sad. More like pathetic.”
“You must tell me. Only if you wish.”
She looked at his number, then hers. “How much time?”
“I sense you should take all the time you need.”
She explained the botched adoption and said that the heavy drinking began after, for both of them. But, actually, his name change had cast him into a grandiose light, an inflated sense of himself probably going back to his parents’ divorce and his feelings of abandonment. Becoming Wallace was a silly compensation, one that amused her from the beginning, yet she had fallen hopelessly for the social standing — his trust-fund adolescence — which rescued her from her parents’ lower-middle-class station, especially her father’s depression. When she called her parents after Jordan was abruptly gone, her father wept on the phone, saying that his very own name had been taken.
She paused — gazing at a window where someone stood trying to get questions answered — and said Wallace’s disability brought him down a notch or two, which had the most extraordinary and unpredictable effect on her. She felt a superiority by his helplessness and a supposed power over him. She had never said that before. Was it something about the man sitting beside her and his regal demeanor that brought out that phrasing?
“Well,” he said, “you just articulated a most ambivalent set of feelings in a concise and profound manner.”
She had never been to psychotherapy but wondered if this was what it was like. On she went. She and her husband never lacked for money with him drawing from a munificent trust fund administered by some bank that, according to Wallace, liked to pinch it tightly, only reluctantly letting it loose from time to time. After his car accident when the bank learned he could draw social security benefits, some of the trust fund allocations dried up a bit. And she went from full-time teaching to part-time, caring for him.
Two numbers were called back-to-back, with people down the line checking theirs.
“We’ve still some waiting ahead of us,” he said.
“Thanks for listening.”
She said she had previously mentioned their drinking. Did he ever see the old movie “Days of Wine and Roses?”
“Oh, yes, my dear. Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Wonderful music by Henry Mancini.”
No one else she knew had ever seen the movie.
She said she and Wallace happened upon the movie late one night on television after, of course, they’d both been drinking. Oddly enough, during the film, they did not drink. But they downed a couple before bed.
He said, “Pardon the expression, but that was a sobering film.”
She told him it wasn’t sobering for them. She looked at the ceiling, pausing for a couple of beats, and said how she still recalls a line from the Lee Remick character, about how she couldn’t get over how dirty the world looked without alcohol. And it wasn’t long after seeing that movie Wallace had his car wreck. He was not drunk.
The old man touched her shoulder again.
She felt odd recounting for him — and in all places, the Social Security office — how their lives led up to the car crash. How she and Wallace after high school trotted off to the same college, how she accepted that his family footed her college tuition, while her mother and father worked two jobs to pay for room and board, they knowing full well there would be other expenses that Wallace’s family must be providing. How she and Wallace each had their own college dalliances with other people, first on the sly, then openly admitting their indiscretions, if, indeed, that word could be applied to a non-married couple in the freedom of a promiscuous college scene.
The bond holding them together must have been sealed during their surprise meet-ups in college taverns just off campus where on a few occasions she and Wallace left with each other while abandoning the ones they came with. Those alcohol-fueled escapades both thrilled and dispirited them in nearly equal measure, setting the tone for the rest of their married lives. She later, after receiving her degree in English literature, encapsulated their relationship from a line in a poem she wrote and kept hidden, “the ambivalent twists and turns of star-crossed love.”
She knew she had told him too much.
A few people’s numbers were announced, and she hoped time would slow down, wanting him to talk. “Tell me about yourself,” she said.
“Have you traveled much, my dear?” he asked.
Why was he evading?
He said, “Travel can lead to enlightenment, also sadness. One seems to breed the other.”
“I didn’t need to travel to find both,” she said. “Enlightenment evaporated more quickly than sadness.”
“Rarely do they exist equally.”
“Was your travel related to acting?” Maybe this would get things rolling.
“Yes and no. I took acting students to several places, New York City and London for example, hoping they might witness high level work and be inspired to do their best, whether in acting or some other endeavor. Seeing excellence often fosters excellence, you know.”
What was that supposed to mean? Was he edging toward some profound truth? She had just spilled much of her not-so-happy past, and what exactly was he trying to say?
“You alluded to you and your late spouse’s drinking,” he said.
Shouldn’t he signal before changing directions so abruptly? “Non sequiturs do not become you,” she blurted, feeling her face redden.
“I’ve struck the proverbial nerve.”
Yes, this must indeed be like therapy. Of the gentle sort, this off-handed encounter with a man she felt she should apologize to — or at least accommodate. She sensed him looking at her.
“And all along,” she said, “I didn’t know I was so transparent. Yes, our drinking.”
Strange, during those years of intense arguing when they shouted and railed, each trying to match drunken wits, that Wallace never once struck her, never even a balled-up fist that she noticed. But she struck him twice, nothing more than petty slaps — she had never come close to hitting anyone. The silly thought of “you always hurt the one you love” the next day, while sober and crestfallen, amused in a pathetic sort of way.
She wondered if each morning, like her, he also promised himself he would go easy on the booze, only to month by month see the drinking increase, to the point that she might follow him to bed, each trying to hold onto the hallway walls, forgetting to set an alarm. Arriving late to work.
And then their friends at parties laughing at their unhinged antics — most at first thought they were funny — but later the invitations slipped to almost nothing, She was afraid mentioning to him why their social interactions appeared to dry up. Did he realize?
After the car wreck — fortunately sober or else Social Security would not have granted disability — and after the painful physical rehabilitation, she knew he might try to overdo the pain medication and ask her to find other doctors to prescribe. Yet, he did not. And he vowed his drinking would not help and said he saw this as a chance to rid them of their dependence. But gradually he begged for drinks, which she denied but finally allowed daily, then welcomed. It assuaged his pain as he lay in bed, refusing to use crutches, calling them his “goddamned aluminum legs” and determined never to try walking again, spurning rehab visits. He said he’d lie in bed, “with you wiping my ass till my dying day.”
Not once during those drinking days did either propose another adoption. She supposed Jordan’s abrupt and shattering departure nixed any possibility for another devastating loss. Had drinking become their adopted child?
The more she sat there, the more she longed to stay, talking with him. But how much should she tell him about how the crippling drinking matched Wallace’s disabled body?
“Your drinking?” she finally asked. After all, he brought hers up.
“Minimal at first, then with each wife, it got heavier.”
This was interesting, “So, spouses bring on drinking? As a rule?”
He cocked his ear toward the PA speaker then looked at his number.
“Go on,” she said.
“As a rule? I’m not much on rules, since breaking them was often de rigueur in my past circles. I speak only from my perspective. But yes, the more spouses, the more drinking.”
“What rules did you break?” Not especially where she wanted this to go. “Never mind, back to your drinking.”
“Mostly solitary, I’d say, with notable exceptions.”
“And they were?”
“Working with actors, then in academics with colleagues. But, mostly, certain rigors of marriages hastened, how shall I say, my proclivity to imbibe.”
“I suppose all marriages have their rigors.” She stared at the PA speaker, thinking.
Most of her marriage’s rigors vanished when he died. First, the sudden shock of discovering him late one morning still in bed — they slept in different rooms — and the tactile jolt of touching his cold hand. Then what must have been her sudden blacking out while she stood beside the bed. She eventually came back into some kind of strained consciousness, denying what should have been the obvious knowledge that he was gone. How long did she stand there?
And the 911 call with what seemed like every emergency vehicle in three counties arriving, including the police, saying a “dead body” required their presence. One of the cops even mentioned “foul play,” the impact of which did not strike her until “autopsy” rolled out of another cop’s mouth. “Held for questioning” knocked her into immediate anger. Just what they hell?
The trauma of being questioned. The eventual autopsy report: heart attack, blood alcohol content high. And her exoneration — if that’s what you call it — from being charged with killing him. Didn’t he actually kill himself, a kind of prolonged suicide, with her watching all those years? Yet, she drank along with him. Had she “spoon feed” him into death, proffering him drinks, hastening the cold body she found in that bed?
“My husband’s death,” she told the man, “was possibly the most liberating moment of my life. I’m only beginning to accept that, after some time of denying it.”
“And right now?”
“I’m still pushing away the guilt.”
“Doesn’t being here and inquiring into practical matters soften part of that guilt?”
He was indeed counseling her, and his mere presence brought a certain, yet strange, comfort others had not provided. Damnedest thing.
“It’s a start,” she said.
A garbled voice from the speaker must have called his number. “That’s me,” he said, but did not rise immediately. “Take care of your drinking, my dear.”
She touched his hand before he walked away, watching him head toward a window. Would he look back? He did not.
She sat for a moment, then tore up her number, letting the pieces fall gently to the floor at her feet, with a finality she supposed meant something, but could not define — or begin to understand.
She walked past the the rent-a-cops standing at the door, trying not to look, but when she did, they were talking to people just entering, their brows furrowed in that stupid, imperious way she’d seen before. “Fuck off,” she whispered, not caring if they heard or not.
Buckling up in her car, then driving slowly through the parking lot, she pictured just out of view the grocery store and its beautiful and comforting liquor section. Soon she would make a decision as she headed for the intersection, two cars before her waiting at the red light. What would she do next? The grocery store sat just across the street. She recalled his polished, cordovan penny loafers and his measured walk to the window.
Whatever she did, it would have to do — as she watched the light turn green.