Two days later I called Ronny and told him I would not be his lawyer. With him away I came to my senses and did what I knew I ought to do to begin with. I could not be a party to Ronny’s imprisonment; it would tear me up inside and I’d lose my objectivity. I might make things worse.
“You can’t do this to me, Bagley,” he’d said over and over, but I held firm. “I’ll help you get Don Samuel or Ed Tolley,” I said, naming some top-notch Georgia criminal-defense attorneys.
“Fuck you G-Bag,” he’d said, ending the conversation. I felt bad, of course, but confident I’d done the right thing.
You may be wondering whether the business with Ronny and Shelly figured into my decision. I’ll leave you to decide that for yourself. I don’t think it did but I can’t be objective when it comes to Shelly, any more than I can with Ronny.
I felt bad about telling Ronny I couldn’t do it, but not nearly bad as I’d have felt if I hadn’t. It took a load off my mind. I really didn’t need anything else weighing on me because I had plenty to deal with at home without importing problems from Towns County.
Home was where I lived without my wife and son, a large, empty house that echoes with their absence, a hundred-year-old wooden house six blocks off the Clinton town square. In the kitchen of my house, my fourteen year old son recently told me that he hated me, then got in the car with his mother and left. That was a month ago. I haven’t seen him since. He won’t talk to me.
He doesn’t hate me, I know, but hearing him say it really hurts. We’d been best buddies until his mother left, shared interests in sports, “The Simpsons” and rock-and-roll bringing us closer than the usual filial bond, then after she left we were further bound in a conspiracy of two to get her back.
She left last fall, the day the jury freed Jerry Davenport, and came back as soon as the semester ended at Cloister College, where she teaches. I felt like a man who’d been given reprieve from a sentence of exile and I think Jim felt the same.
She’d left, she said, because she needed to find out who she was. I guess she found out, because she came back. Six days later she left again, because I found who she was, and told her I would leave if she didn’t.
I’d put seventeen years into a marriage with a woman whom I thought I knew but didn’t, and now that I do, the sight of her pretty face makes me feel like I’ve been tied to the whipping post. Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying. My son won’t speak to me because she’s told him it’s me who won’t have her, and I can’t tell him why that is. I fall back on lame shit like, “It just didn’t work out.” Of course I could tell him the truth, but I don’t know whether I should. You tell me.
I guess you’ll want more information if you’re going to play Dear Abby.
When I met Ursula Chastain, I was working in the Virginia Highlands section of Atlanta, an area between Emory University and Midtown which in 1980 had just turned the corner from decaying urban squalor to the upscale collection of restaurants and shops it is today. I was waiting tables at Atkins Park Delicatessen, which had been there through it all, starting as a solid neighborhood pub then descending to seedy juke-joint before reemerging as a trendy restaurant with al fresco seating while somehow retaining some of its hippy-dive ambiance.
Ronny McKay was living in Atlanta too, finishing up an undergraduate degree in Psychology at Georgia State University. Ronny, like me, had sporadically attended college for ten years, but unlike me he took it seriously when he did and maintained a 3.8 grade point average. We both lived in Little Five Points, which was then a fairly low rent district, and he’d sometimes stop in at Atkins Park on his way home from school.
When I emerged from the kitchen with a tray of sandwiches this particular October day, Ronny was sitting at a table in the restaurant’s fenced-in alley with the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen close-up and in person.
I did not tell Ronny McKay, as I had told him about Shelly Ballew twelve years earlier, that I would get me some of that, for Ursula Chastain looked unattainable. I was no longer Best All Around, and she had the breathtaking look of a movie star--Ingred Bergman or Audrey Hepburn--and though she smiled politely when Ronny introduced us, her attitude seemed imperious. Still, I fell all over myself being witty and charming, because all one had to do to want Ursula was to see her.
I did my singing waiter routine. If there’s anything that you want,/ If there’s anything I can do,/ Just call on me and I’ll send it along/ With love from me to you. I suggested a drink I’d invented which tasted just like the last drink you’d tasted: The Tequila Mockingbird. I folded napkins into swans and butterflies.
You might wonder why this ravishing woman was with Ronny McKay, but I didn’t. Ronny was good looking enough but he wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. He was brighter than average, but being a twenty-eight-year-old undergraduate didn’t put him on the fast track to wealth and fame. I’d never heard him rumored to be a great lover, although we had many friends in common and I think I would’ve heard. What Ronny had that could get you any number of beautiful women in Atlanta, Georgia in 1980, at least for the short haul, was an endless supply of cocaine.
Not that I blamed Ronny for what a sour-grapes observer might call an unfair advantage. I didn’t blame him any more than I’d blame someone with an exceptional voice for singing or, a better analogy, someone who’d won a medal for showing it off. While others of us could chip in a hundred dollars or two for an evening of recreational drug use, Ronny was doing some fairly major dealing and had access to as much coke as his body could stand. I never knew the extent of Ronny’s dealings. I made it a point not to and he had the good sense to volunteer nothing, but I knew he was taking big risks to live the life he did, so I couldn’t begrudge him its reward the way I would someone born to the silver coke spoon.
Ursula and Ronny drank a pitcher of beer with a bowl of steamed mussels, then she got on a Marta bus and headed off to her apartment on Virginia Avenue. Before she left I learned that she was in graduate school at Georgia State; she worked part time as a model; she spent a lot of her time at the movies, and that she’d met Ronny through our mutual friend, Liz Lasseter.
“So, you having a thing with Ms. Chastain, McKay?” I asked as we watched her disappear from view.
“Why? You thinking about making a fool of yourself?”
“Maybe. I just don’t wanna step on any toes,” I said, standing on the sidewalk she’d just graced.
“We had a good time one night a few weeks ago. She hasn’t shown any interest since then. She’s out of our league, G-Bag. Swimming pools and movie stars. Go for it if you’re a glutton for punishment.”
“I just might,” I said, but wondered if I really had the nerve. I was a little fish in a big pond, no trophy catch. Shelly Ballew had shown me that big time and I hadn’t forgotten. My live-in girlfriend had just left me three months earlier. I’d had enough rejection to last me a while.
But I did ask Liz Lasseter about her, Liz who was a friend and sometimes lover to all the boys in my circle and some of the women, but nobody’s sweetheart for long. I’ve never been sure why that was. “George has got the hots for Ursula C., huh? You and everybody else. Join the club,” she’d said, pushing chestnut-brown hair back from clear blue eyes.
“You think she’d go out with me?” I asked.
“Hell, how should I know, George? I don’t know her that well. She might, I guess; she’s got quirky tastes. She kissed me once at a party. Of course we both had straws up our noses. If you’re going to try, now would be the time. She was living with this writer guy from Asheville--that’s where she’s from--till recently. She usually has a heartthrob boyfriend of some kind. I wouldn’t wait long.”
“You think you might mention me to her?” I ventured.
“Talk about your big dick and your lust for life?”
“Something like that. Tell her she might get lucky if she plays her cards right.”
“Sure, I’ll do it. Old Liz, everybody’s pal.” She looked at me wistfully. We both knew she’d be my girl if that were an option. I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, “Thanks, Liz,” kissed her on the cheek and left.
I saw Ursula two days later when she came in with another woman at happy hour. She smiled and put her hand on my arm when she introduced me to her friend. The tables were full so they sat at the bar. I didn’t have much chance to talk to her. I thought about it but couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t sound stupid, so I was glad to have an excuse not to. I hadn’t heard back from Liz.
I scurried around taking orders and bussing tables, kept forgetting things because I was distracted by the woman whose face I caught glimpses of in the mirror behind the bar. The bartender, Reggie, whom I now hated, was hovering over her to the extent it was hard to get my drinks made. She had, I counted, three vodka martinis. When she left, she sought me out and hugged me like we were old friends, then turned and winked at me over her shoulder as she left.
I finished my shift with my feet barely touching the floor. A couple of gay guys left me a fifty dollar tip. I was giddy and anxious to get home and call Liz, until I emptied my apron to count my tips and found a matchbook turned inside out on which was written, “Ursula Chastain, 876-2402.” I still have it.
When I called the next day she asked how I got her number. I told her it was written on a stall in the bathroom.
“You sure know how to sweet talk a girl,” she said.
“You’re just saying that,” I said.
We went out to dinner that night at the Pleasant Peasant, hit the bars until they closed, then had alternately bone-crushing and silky smooth sex until dawn, a pattern we repeated almost nightly for months to come, Ursula Chastain and I.
I was in heaven. She would do anything I would do and I don’t just mean in bed. She’d drink Wild Turkey straight up, drink the Guinness Stout that even my alcohol-foraging roommates wouldn’t touch. She’d go with me to Braves games; she learned to play Foosball and play it well. She was up for any outing my friends suggested. If I did it, then it must be alright. Wonder of wonders, she seemed as much in love with me as I with her.
I was drunk on her love, happier than I thought I had any right to be. She was too good to be true, a breathtakingly beautiful woman who acted like one of the boys. She empowered me, inspired me. Those first years with Ursula were the most productive in my life and by the time that hot passion began to cool we were married and I’d finished a year of law school.
I’ve told you all this to shed some light on why we’ve been married for seventeen years, much of it spent in controlled animosity. Looking back, I think part of the problem was that I continued to treat her like one of the boys long after she stopped idolizing me. Boys don’t need flowers on Valentine’s day; boys don’t need a lot of petting; boys suck it up and make the best of it. But Ursula wasn’t a boy, she was a passionate woman adopting another lifestyle out of love for a man, storing up my transgressions in an arsenal for future use.
And use them she did. There were a few years of open hostility. She would get drunk and scream and cry and break glass, but we still hit runs of our prior passion. Then our son was born and things were never the same. He was now the chosen one; I was someone she put up with. But she loved me, twisted though it may have been, and I loved her and hid my love away, always believing that somehow things would get better and we would be friends again.
I hid my love away because I didn’t think it could survive her icy contempt; at least that’s what I told myself at the time. Looking back, I can see I neglected her because it was just too much trouble to deal with her depression and complaints I couldn’t fix, until finally, last fall, she left “to find out who she was.”
When she left I was shattered. I stopped sleeping for the first couple of months. My life became a campaign to win her back and in this my son was my powerful ally.
I listened; I soothed; I empathized. I didn’t talk about myself unless I was asked. I owned up to what a sorry husband I had been, for the first time seeing how true that was, but I never doubted that she loved me, no matter what she said to the contrary.
After a month or so she told me she was “seeing” a professor at her college, part of her ongoing pursuit of who she was. She wouldn’t tell me who he was, and though I pored over the list of potential suspects, hating each in proportion to his perceived likelihood of being her lover, I did my best to deal with it.
I started sleeping with my neighbor, Corey McFain, a tall, young, green-eyed Texan whom I’d met at Cowboy Heaven where she tended bar, not knowing she was my neighbor at first. I eased up my assault on Ursula, deciding I would just have to wait her out. I had fun with Corey McFain, but it was tacitly understood that my door was always open to Ursula’s return.
In June, when her semester ended, after eight months living in an apartment near to the college, she walked in my door as abruptly as she’d walked out, saying she was ready to try again.
For ten days we were happy as newlyweds. We took Jim to Jekyll Island, our habitual summer retreat. I felt like the Count of Monte Cristo, or Job after God called Satan off.
On Friday of that week we left Jim with some videos and had a splendid dinner at the Jekyll Island Club, a palace built by the captains of industry who’d once owned the island. Afterward we sat on one of its several porches having Cognac and dessert, watching the sun set over Brunswick. I decided there would never be a more disarming setting in which to broach the subject of the mystery professor.
“We’ll be different now,” I said, treading gently.
“Yes, how so?”
I looked at her and was, as I still am sometimes, unexpectedly taken aback by her beauty. I almost chickened out but plodded on.
“We rarely talked to each other before,” I said. “I mean the last few years. I mean intimately.”
She started to speak but I silenced her by putting my hand on hers. I needed to get it behind us while I still had momentum.
“I was the worst offender, I know. I was afraid, I think, that if I poured out my heart to you it would be submerged in the flood of our everyday resentment.”
“That sounds like poetry,” she said.
“Thank you. It’s heartfelt. I don’t want us to be that way anymore.” I was feeling more confident. “I want us to be totally open and honest now. No secrets, no private schemes, no hidden agendas. Talk about problems as soon as they arise. I want to make my life an integral part of yours and vice-versa. There shouldn’t be anything so bad or so personal that I can’t talk about it with you.”
“That all sounds good,” she said, but, I sensed, with misgivings. She looked away from me toward a family riding by on bicycles and fingered the jewels at her throat, an expensive gift I’d bought her the week before.
“Does this mean,”she said, “you want to put everything that went on while we were apart under a microscope? Analyze me and my motives?” She smiled, but there was a confrontational edge in her tone.
I tossed away my cigar, which had abruptly turned bitter, took a deep breath and answered, “I’m willing to tell you anything you think you need to know about what I did. I’m not proud of myself, but I won’t keep anything from you.”
“So,” she said, getting louder, “are you going to give me a blow-by-blow description of how good your hot young thing was?”
I couldn’t decide if she was intending a pun and didn’t venture to ask. “As I said, I’ll tell you anything you think you want to know. I don’t have anything bad to say about Corey,” I added, “except that she wasn’t you.” I was proud of that last line.
She stuck her finger in her water glass and rubbed it around the rim of her brandy snifter until it sang, which irritated me but I didn’t say so. I waited.
“I don’t need to know those things, George, and I don’t think you do either. I don’t see anything good that could come of it.” She caressed me with her eyes as she squeezed my arm.
I was tempted to stop there but I didn’t yet know what I needed to know. “I agree,” I said softly, taking her hands in mine. “I just want you to know I would tell you if you asked, and I need to know you would do the same.” I paused, but she was silent. “The only thing I want you to tell me right now is who you were seeing.”
“There was only the one,” she said, freeing her hands and sipping her drink.
“I don’t know whether that’s good or bad,” I told her.
After another long silence, she looked at me with tears in her eyes. “What good could that possibly do? Why can’t you just let it rest?”
“I need to know,” I said, “because I need to know. I’m going to pass this man on the street. I don’t want to suspect every Cloister professor I meet. So long as I don’t know,” I added more softly, “it will eat at me day and night.”
She took another sip of her brandy, then let out a sigh. “Dan Kinard,” she said, not looking at me.
I pictured a man in desert boots and elbow patched tweed, retirement age. I was at first appalled, then insulted at the quality of my competition. I tried to think of what else I knew about him. Married, head of the History department, then, wait a minute. “Didn’t you tell me he was head of the tenure committee?”
She still wasn’t looking at me. She said, “Yeah, what of it?” took a big sip of Cognac, got up and walked off to the bathroom.
We got up and left the next day, speaking only as packing and driving demanded, our son looking like a frightened animal in the back seat. When we got home I told her one of us was moving out. She left that evening.
So, should I tell my son the truth? Tell him that his mother prostituted herself to advance her career? To a married man old enough to be her father? Should I tell him that it appears to me, despite her denials, that leaving “to find herself” was just bullshit to enable this affair? I don’t think so but you tell me. Because in order to spare him the truth, preserve his relationship with Ursula, it is I who bears the brunt of his resentment.
And what about Ursula? Ursula whom I think about every day and whom I miss with a longing that is a physical ache within me. Should I forgive her? Am I being unreasonable? “It was just sex,” she says of her affair with Kinard. She pleads with me to take her back. She claims it was just a coincidence that he was head of the tenure committee. He’d been flirting with her for months before she indicated her willingness to bed him. There wasn’t much available in her small circle. She recognized the potential career benefits but that wasn’t her motivation.
Bullshit. She has a powerful facility for recreating history to suit her ends. The question is: even knowing what I know, should I, will I, forgive her? I think the answer is probably going to be yes, but I’m not there yet. A lot more water needs to pass under that bridge and part of it must be of her owning up to just how badly she acted. I think I could start again from there.
The afternoon after I told Ronny I wouldn’t take his case, I was taking care of business from which my talk with him had distracted me, answering phone calls, reading mail when she walked in. Connie, my secretary, must have been in the bathroom because Shelly Ballew walked in unannounced. I looked up and saw above me a face which haunts my dreams. She was thinner than when I last saw her, older of course. She strongly resembled, it occurred to me not for the first time, another Georgia girl, the actor Kim Basinger.
“Hello George. It’s been a long time.”
“Shelly!” I said, surprise having taken the timbre out of my voice so that I sounded like an adolescent.
I got up and walked toward her. She met me halfway and when we hugged a nostalgic thrill went through me as she pressed her chest into mine. I backed off and held her at arm’s length. “You look great,” I said, stating the obvious. She was wearing baggy cut-offs and a pale yellow tank top which matched her flip-flops, the plain, foamy-rubber kind they sell at discount stores. Shelly had always had enough money that she didn’t feel the need to flash it in her clothes, and she again had that body which didn’t require sexy attire to command one’s attention.
“Thanks,” she said. “You look as good as you did at the prom.” She looked me over. “Let’s see now; you got less hair and it’s a lot shorter, but I swear I think you could wear the same pants. You moonlighting as a male stripper or what?”
Shelly spoke in the same Appalachian dialect with which we’d both grown up, so that “or what” came out “ar whut.” Coming from her it was music to my ears.
“I think it’s ‘or what.’ Have a seat,” I said, moving a stack of files from the less cluttered of two chairs.
“So, George, George, George,” she said, twisting around in her seat, surveying the room. “This is nice. Kind of like what you expect Atticus Finch’s office to look like.”
“That’s pretty much what I had in mind,” I said to the side of her face, admiring the definition of muscles in her neck and shoulders which turning emphasized. “Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what brings you to visit me for the first time in several decades?” I asked, although the question was disingenuous.
“Did I catch you at a bad time? I guess I should’ve called first. I wanted to surprise you. Are you real busy?”
“Nothing that can’t wait for you.”
“You got time to go have a drink somewhere? It’s way too businesslike in here. It feels like you’re gonna up and start drafting my will any minute now.”
I looked at my watch. 3:45. “Connie,” I said, picking up my phone and pressing the intercom button. “Would you please call and reschedule the four-thirty appointment with Vickie Cantrell?”
“Sure,” she said. “Do you want to give her a reason?” Shelly was grinning at me and I grinned back. “Yeah, tell her I just got a hot date with a horny divorcee.”
divorcee. I got it.” Connie, being used to me, is hard to rattle.
“Let’s go,” I said, collecting my coat and hat.
We walked out through the reception room. “Connie,” I said, “this is an old friend from back in Towns County, Shelly Ballew. Shelly, this is my assistant, Connie Fambrough.”
“Nice to meet you,” Connie said, giving her the once over, then slightly arching an eyebrow my way.
“How do you put up with him?” Shelly asked.
Her country-girl informality struck the note she intended with Connie who laughed and said, “He pays me, honey. He pays me.”
Out in the hall, I said, “You still talk like a Towns County sawmiller’s girl.”
“You got a problem with that, buddy? Cause if you do, yore ass is grass,” she said, intentionally hardening the “a” sound into the backwoods mountain speech we upscale Towns Countians used to parody.
“You mean I’m ‘crusin’ for a bruisin?’ You know I don’t have a problem with that. A Towns County lady raised me. I just think it’s interesting that Vanderbilt didn’t change your speech the way it did mine.”
“Well, I think it enlarged my vocabulary a little, G-Bag. It never embarrassed me the way it did you,” she added as we went down the stairs side-by-side.
“You’re saying you had more innate self-confidence than I did.”
“Whoa now. You had more self-confidence than anybody I ever met. It’s just that...Nevermind, I like the way you talk now. It’s kind of an educated Southern blend.”
“Igen talk like you’uns anytime I take a notion.”
“Shit I reckon,” she said.
“We’ll need to take your car. I walked to work.”
“Oh, goody. ‘Baby, you can drive my car.’ It’ll be like old times. It’s over here.”
As we walked around the town square, I thought about a ‘66 Mustang convertible, and later a GTO, barreling down mountain roads. “This is it,” she said and handed me the keys.
“No shit it’ll be like old times,” I said, because I was holding the key to a perfectly restored, classic Mustang convertible.
“It’s the original sixty-four-and-a-half model,” she said.
We were the only customers at Stiller’s Bar and Grill, one of three places in Liberty County where you can get a drink that isn’t a Chinese or Mexican restaurant. I selected it over The Whistle Stop or Cowboy Heaven because it was cool and dark in contrast to the blazing August heat outside, and, as I’d hoped, empty of people I knew.
When we were seated in a booth the bartender, a chain-smoking older woman in polyester pants, served us Tanqueray martinis. Two televisions played silently in opposite corners of the room, one tuned to a talk show, the other to a soap opera. Shelly said, “I like this place. It’s the way a bar is supposed to be: dark and smelling like stale beer and cigarettes.”
I watched her sip her martini then smile and lick her luscious full lips. I was struck with the urge to pull her face to mine and kiss those lips I’d kissed so many times before, but instead I said, “I remember when you wouldn’t drink anything that didn’t have a maraschino cherry in it. You said gin tasted like kerosene.”