MICHAEL MCNARY - A GOOD MAN
A Good Man
“Landon, what are you waiting for? Is something wrong?”
Her voice reverberates. It seems extrasolar, like I’m intercepting a sound from beyond Orion. I don’t know how long she’s been sitting there. Maybe lightyears.
Her bra lies askew at the end of the bedspread, but I don’t remember her taking it off. The fresh no-scent of absurdly excessive disinfectant and deodorizer over the hard surfaces and linens returns to me. The latticework on the small window throws slants of light over her upturned face and onto the Rembrandt painting behind her. A bottle of Pinot Noir rests atop the table stand, the one where they always keep the Bibles.
I feel as if I might faint. A verse comes to mind. Ephesians 6:12: For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities. I quickly dismiss it. I am not a spiritual man.
Two wine glasses lie beside the bottle, one empty and one a blood-red which matches the color of her lipstick. I’m not drunk, not yet, because I’ve only had the one glass that may have been five or five million minutes ago. It’s not that, nor is it the allure of her naked beauty. It’s her eyes that are doing this to me, those dark hazel oceans that have burned and risen from the ashes. They will soon make this night one worthy of Greek tragedy.
“This is why I like you, Landon. You listen. I tell you to stop staring at my tits so much, so now you don’t look even when I take my shirt off for you.”
I met her after my most important lecture of the semester: Consequentialist Vs. Categorical Moral Reasoning.
The night was freezing, so I decided to stop by the faculty lounge to see if Jeanette wouldn’t let me brew up some Volcanica before I headed home. It’s really a toss-up as to what takes the crown for the greatest perk of my teaching career: making a positive impact on the minds of young people, or the fact that I haven’t paid for coffee in twenty-seven years.
The door was locked, which meant Jeanette had gone home early again. No biggie. I would just let myself in and make sure to leave a note, lest she raise holy Hell about it tomorrow.
Henry David Thoreau entered my mind for no reason at all, and I got to humming a little tune I called “Life is But the Stream I Go A-Brewin’ In.” Thinking I was alone with the coffee-maker, my own idiotic thoughts and awful singing, I heard a voice behind me.
“Kant was an asshole.”
Half from fright and half from embarrassment, I jumped a little before turning around and nearly losing my balance. “I… I beg your pardon?”
“Immanuel Kant. He was a sexist, pro-war, demoralizing asshole, professor Richter.”
She looked to be a woman in her forties, or closer in age to myself than anyone who was in the habit of addressing me as “professor Richter.” I hadn’t noticed her in the lecture hall, and she wasn’t present for the brief Q&A I offer for my more ardent thinkers afterwards. This was no student of mine. She was wearing a pair of Levi’s with a white Cardigan sweater, a sky-blue scarf with the school mascot draped neatly over it. And she was stunningly beautiful.
I might have responded by informing her that Kant was the most brilliant and influential thinker in all modern philosophy. I might have asked her how she got in, how I didn’t hear the door open. I might have told her that she scared the living, breathing shit out of me just a moment ago, and if she could please take her foul attitude elsewhere, thank you very much. But she carried herself with an austere, assertive sort of confidence that fascinated me enough to humor her.
I grinned and folded my arms. “You forgot racist.”
Her dead-eyed glare slowly became a bright smile. She approached me and offered her hand. “I’m Dr. Melinda Fillmore. But you can call me Mindy.”
I had heard something about an interim professor of sociology stepping in while Yolanda was on maternity leave. I shook her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Mindy. Or should I call you Hypatia of Alexandria?”
She giggled, and her complexion grew brighter. “Too controversial. Elizabeth Anscombe is more up my alley.”
For the first time I noticed her eyes. As ridiculous as it sounds, I saw something there that made me feel like a man no longer lost in a silent sea. There was music behind those eyes. And besides, she actually understood my humor.
She put her hands to her hips. “You know, it seems in entirely bad taste to not offer a woman shitty coffee in the midst of a heated philosophical discussion.”
Stupid. Stupid, Landon. What the fuck is wrong with you? Just sitting here drinking it in front of her. “Where are my manners? Let me brew up another cup.”
“No, no. I was just kidding, professor Richter.” She looked at the ground and began tracing circles with her right foot. This timidity was new. Perhaps it was something I said.
I smiled curiously. “Call me Landon.”
She looked up, and her eyes met mine again. “Okay, Landon.” She turned to go. “I’ll be seeing you around. Nice lecture, by the way. Kant the asshole would be proud.”
She reached the door. I suddenly realized my heart was pounding, my stomach was turning over on itself, and my brows were sweating. The music was fading. I couldn’t let this song get away from me. “Uh..m, miss Fill-, Mindy?”
She turned around, her beauty a thing to behold even half-hidden in the darkness. “Yes?”
It took everything I had in me to say what I said next. I didn’t know how it would come across, but I knew I had to say it anyway. “Do you believe in fate?”
She pondered over this for a moment, then smiled radiantly. “What an odd question, Landon. I guess that depends. If my fate involves a certain professor of philosophy buying me some real coffee in the near future, then I suppose I do.”
I tried to hide my glee and relief, but I don’t think I was successful. “I think that would be in entirely good taste.”
She pushed the door open. “Tomorrow morning at 7. Little place by my house. I’ll text you the address.”
The door shut behind her. She wrote her phone number with her index finger on the condensation of the glass.
I felt like I was in high school again. I finished the last of my coffee and jotted down a few words for Jeanette.
But I didn’t feel any warmer.
Again, I can make out the words, but they sound like they are being delivered to me through some channel, some other world that I am not currently inhabiting. She has made a joke. She always makes jokes. She says them at just the right times. Though I have yet to even kiss this woman, her shirt is off, her bra hanging over the side of the bed. That in and of itself is somewhat of a joke. But not a joke in any derogatory sense. A perfect joke between two minds meshing perfectly together. If I was a spiritual man, which I most certainly am not, I would say Mindy Fillmore and I are kindred spirits. Soul Mates. Two peas in a pod. I look into her eyes and look away, then back again. It was just drinks. Jesus, help me, it was just coffee, it was just drinks, and long talks and long walks on the beach. Talks of Nietzche, Sartre, Epictetus. Talks of love and laughter and life. And then it was the drinks and now it is the hotel room. I look at the table stand.
Proverbs 6:32: Whoever does so destroys himself.
Whoever does so destroys himself.
Whoever does so destroys h-
“Mindy, there’s something I need to tell you.”
I met my wife in the Fall of ’87, during my third semester as an undergrad. I was living at home so I could take care of my mother while the government took care of my tuition. I was doing a work-study position in the school bookstore which mocked me with every passing second. In those days, the naïve idealism of youth had me convinced I could write my way out of debt and into intellectual glory among the literary elite. I wanted to spend my time writing my own books that nobody would ever read, not filing and organizing other peoples’. A shame the school didn’t see it that way.
I was combing through a copy of The Scarlet Letter (I made a habit of reading some of the stuff I was supposed to be taking inventory on, to maintain my sanity) when I heard a voice behind me.
“Excuse me? I’m lookin’ for a book by Victor Frankie.”
I turned around to see a young woman who was taller than me by at least half a foot. She was wearing a pair of black shorts that accentuated her long, sinewy bare legs. A gorgeous amber braid fell snuggly over her right shoulder and onto her crimson hoody, veiling the C and K in JACKALS VOLLEYBALL. She was smiling at me with blissful curiosity, the way a small child might smile at a new species of bug in a jar. Her eyes were a hue of hot dark hazel I couldn’t ever remember seeing before.
“What was the name?”
“Victor Frankie,” she repeated, now twirling her braid around with her index finger. “It’s for Psychology. Would y’all happen to have that here?”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. I knew exactly what book she had in mind, as I was responsible for the required text distribution for many of the entry level classes. She stopped smiling and put both hands to her hips.
“You’re looking for Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It’s an ull sound, not an ee. It’s a brilliant book. A lot of Frankl’s readers value his perspective on life much more than anything ever proposed by Freud.”
“Well sorree, Mr. fancy-pants bookstore man. Tell ya what.” She unslung her backpack and rummaged through it for a second before pulling out a King James Bible. “Show me where to find my book, and you can have this one, since it seems you could learn something about how to treat a lady from the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
I couldn’t tell if she was being serious. I accepted it willingly, regardless, and responded before I could restrain myself. “Thanks. You know, there are about 40 books of bad men in here before I get to Jesus. You sure you want me learning from Lot? From Jephthah?”
Her face became flushed with a heated red. I was almost certain I saw the hint of a grin coming back, but she quickly fumed in anger and stomped her foot down. “Ummmph. You! Just show me where to find my book!”
I walked her over to the F section in Psychology. There was one copy left, which she snatched up eagerly. I was smiling as she walked away and toward the register without a word. But she stopped and stood there for a few moments before turning around.
“For your information,” she began, straightening her posture and folding her arms. “There are plenty of good men in the Old Testament. Not that you would know the difference.”
“Maybe I need a good woman to point them out for me.”
That one got her. I had never seen a woman blush with such colorful intensity. “Maybe you do.”
I walked up to her and offered my hand. “I’m Landon.”
It took her a second. She looked at my hand, then back up at me before offering her own. “Ruby.”
“You have a beautiful name, Ruby.”
We stood looking at each other for a while. I don’t know if it was the accent, the sporty look, or the blind ignorance in believing in a thousand-year-old myth. But I liked this girl in a way that went beyond opposite attraction. This girl was…. fixable.
“Do you believe in fate, Landon?”
The question took me aback, but I quickly answered anyway. “I don’t know, Ruby. Do good men believe in fate?”
She smiled and shook her head. “No. They believe in Christ.”
Another silent few moments.
“You know, uh, y’all have a big campus. I just transferred on a volleyball scholarship. Maybe you could show me around?”
I nodded. “I’m off in fifteen. I’d be happy to.”
“Great! I, uh, I’m gonna go change. I’m in 312C. Come up when you’re off, yeah?”
I winked at her like an idiot. But I didn’t care. It seemed appropriate in the moment.
When she was gone, I opened a page at random from the Bible she gave me.
Ecclesiastes 10:12: The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but the lips of a fool shall swallow him up.
“Daddy, why did God take Austin away? Didn’t He love him?”
It was a new kind of question. First, I looked to my wife in the passenger seat to see if she may have caught it too, but she only gazed absentmindedly at the passing fields.
“God loved Austin very much, Savannah,” I said. “God loved him so much, in fact, that He brought him home early.”
This response seemed to offer some temporary relief, both in my daughter’s distraught mind and for my own respite from her incessant questions I had no business answering. And Ruby hadn’t spoken to me in weeks, save for the cordial necessities.
It was June of ’99. A month had passed since my boy, Austin, was hit and killed by a drunk driver while riding his tricycle on the corner of our street. My wife and I both had nervous breakdowns, but for my daughter’s sake, I had to force myself to remain strong on the outside even though I was dead within. And questions like these felt like progress. What had been uncontrollable crying for hours on end, with words like “dead” and “die” and phrases like “I hate God” were now subsiding into the tolerable realm of curiosities and more pleasant expressions.
Later that day, I got to work on the picket fence I had started in my yard. Ruby came out and gave me a glass of water with lemon in it.
She had been crying, that much was obvious. I accepted the glass and nodded to her in thanks, returning to my shoveling after a healthy swig.
“You’ve got some nerve,” she said dryly, after some time, “talkin’ to my daughter like that. Some mighty high promises, comin’ from a man who don’t even believe in God.”
I had an idea she was looking to get at me for something. We had agreed to raise our children in the church, despite my personal views on the matter. She knew it as well as I did.
“Who says I don’t believe in God?”
“Oh, please. You don’t read the Word anymore. You don’t do much of anything these days, aside from buryin’ your nose in those fancy books and buildin’ this fence.”
“Ruby, if you’re looking for a fight, you’re not going to find it here,” I replied, slinging dirt into my wheelbarrow.
“I’m not lookin’ for a fight. I’m lookin’ for my husband.”
That stopped me. I glanced up at her.
“What sort of man builds a fence at all hours of the day when he loses his boy?”
She was looking at me the way she did when I first met her, only this time all the jovial curiosity was gone. But it was the same somehow. Like we had just met.
“The sort who loves his family,” I said.
“That so? The way I see it, a man who loves his family ought to be lovin’ his family when they’re hurtin’.”
This was another reasonless jab. I had held her in my arms all night for nights on end. I had rocked my daughter to sleep when the tears wouldn’t stop. I had been with them night and day, stalwart as a soldier.
“A man’s got to deal with his grief in his own way.”
“Grief!” she chortled. “You don’t grieve for nothin’! You have no emotion! It’s like Austin never existed to you!” The tears had started again. “Here I am wishin’ the good Lord would take me now, put me outa my misery, and you’re out here buildin’ a fence!”
She buried her face in her hands and began to sob uncontrollably. I approached her and put my hand behind her back. “Come on, honey. Let’s go inside. We’re going to disturb the neighbors.”
“FUCK the neighbors!” she wailed, pushing me away so hard I nearly fell into the dirt.
In the ten years I had known her, I had never heard her swear. Not once. And she unleashed it with a rage so profoundly foreign that I questioned whether I ever knew her at all.
“Who are you buildin’ this fence for, Landon? For your family? Does this make you feel like a man? Like you’re protectin’ us? Think you can keep folks out? You couldn’t even keep Austin in!”
I wanted to slap her. I really did. But my mother raised me better than that. Instead I threw down my shovel angrily and positioned my face within inches of hers. “How dare you. How fucking dare you.”
She backed away cautiously, as if realizing she had inadvertently awoken something dangerous. “Daddy was right about you.”
“Daddy’s in Atlanta, sweet cheeks.”
She shook her head with incredulity. “You ain’t no good man, Landon Richter,” she said, wiping her face and regaining her composure. The fear, anger, and sorrow had all left her. She walked inside and turned around before closing the door. “You ain’t no good man at all.”
When I was a kid, I had heard it tossed around quite a bit that men marry women like their mothers. Though my mother was a devout Catholic, she was further from Ruby in personality than light is from dark. But I came to realize something that day alone out in the heat with my shovel and my crumbling world. I had spent my life educating myself away from the church my mother had prayed desperately to draw me back into. I wanted a real life, one led walking in real answers, in truth I would discover for myself. My mother was too far gone to see that, but Ruby wasn’t. At times she listened, and she knew. Deep down, she wanted the same things I did. But I couldn’t save her either. My mother died in my arms, her expression at my unceasing rebellion a shattered visage, the same shattered visage on Ruby that day. And I knew that Austin’s death and Ruby’s grief weren’t what divided us. It was my rebellion. I put walls up with my mother, and I put walls up with Ruby. Always one foot in and one foot out. Faith and rationality. I was a man divided amongst himself.
There were vineyards that spread out for miles past the old Victorian home I had bought for my family. Ruby said it felt like Paradise the day we moved in. We had beauty that stretched all the way to the horizon. But I looked out and could only think one thought:
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The night after my daughter went off to start her Master’s program, I came home to find Ruby flipping through an old photo album with pictures of the family just after Austin was born. It had been a long time since either of us had taken it out. Some of our friends in the Bible study group we were attending strongly advised against it. But she was smiling in a way I hadn’t seen in as long as I could remember, so I was reluctant to intervene.
“Landon, babe, come here,” she said, in the kind of whisper a child might speak in when she was getting into something she knew she wasn’t supposed to.
I sat down and put my arm around her. “Ruby…”
“Look how happy we are,” she said.
She flipped to a photo of me with Austin raised over my head, Savannah clinging to my leg. His wide smile brought back memories of his heartwarming laughter, his arms spread to the world in innocent, magnificent splendor.
Tonight the tears came spontaneously. An outburst rather than a gradual meltdown. She quickly shut the photo album and gave out a piercing wail, like a banshee. She threw the album across the room and climbed up onto the bed, burying her face in the pillow.
After three glasses of wine, an Ambien, and two hours of holding her tightly to me while she bawled and pounded my chest, Ruby drifted off to sleep.
I got through a good fifty pages of Anna Karenina when I decided to call it an evening. I finished the last of my stolen decaf from the teacher’s lounge and got up to use the bathroom.
I turned around. My wife was wide awake, her eyes glossy with inebriation.
“It should have been you.”
I stood there for a moment, looking into those cold, dead eyes. Those eyes that once burned with such inundating fervor.
“It should have been you,” she repeated.
She turned over and went back to sleep.
I went into the bathroom and turned the light on. After a long piss, I looked at my own reflection in the mirror for some time.
Ruby. My Ruby. My Georgia peach. My girl who proclaimed “Yes!” to the world when I got on my knees and asked her to marry me on the balcony of the Globe Theater. My Ruby who was by my side as we beheld Saint Peter’s Basilica. My Ruby who taught me everything I know about hushpuppies and sweet tea on a hot summer day. My Ruby who never laughed at me when I told her I would run with the bulls someday in Pamplona. The mother of my children. My Ruby Richter.
You ain’t no good man.
I removed my wedding ring and flushed it down the toilet.
I tried not to think too much of it.
I had the most important lecture of the semester to give the next day.
“It’s your first time!?”
She laughs again.
“I’m..I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. What, Landon? What could you possibly need to tell a naked, now self-conscious woman before you make love to her?”
I walk over to the table stand and open the drawer.
I laugh hysterically.
“What, Landon? Jesus, what?”
“No, not Jesus,” I reply, shutting the empty drawer. “Not Jesus at all.”