By Paul Silverman
The ferry lurched drunkenly into its berth and Gert tottered down the gangplank wanting to throw up. Kit paraded down onto the wharf like an admiral and got her and the luggage into a cab and over to the hotel. Before she could even get her legs and back comfortable in the restaurant he’d picked out, there he was leaning and breathing garlic in her face and pushing foccacia at her, doing that expert menu scan of his.
“A fusion place,” he said, “Lots of curries. You should get the striper.”
Gert, still rolling with the sea, picked up the menu and took a look. “The plain bland striper?” she said. “Wood-grilled and drizzled in oil. That’s it? Why would I want that?”
“You’re not a cardamom person,” he said. “Be honest.”
She felt something in her stomach beyond the nausea rise to her throat. It was rage.
“I love spices,” she said. “More than you know.”
He put a hand up as though he were calling time. Or saying please don’t shoot. Her rage always killed his rage. Then he would take his dead rage and bury it somewhere, the way a big dog buries a bone, and go on.
“The striper is native to Nantucket,” he said, making his voice merlot-smooth. “Hey, it was probably alive today.”
Gert slugged her sharp gin and ate her salty olive. “It’s just a fish, Kit.”
Next morning, gulping Zantac and still tasting the burn of Indonesian peppers and five-alarm prawns, part of her she wished she had done what he said. But the rest of her was glad she hadn’t. She soothed herself in advertising talk, her native tongue: “I’m not a striper, I’m a snapper.”
This was true. Ever since her failed Brunswick pitch she’d wanted to snap at someone, anyone. And there was Kit, right on her plate, big and oozy and tame as a halibut. For sixteen days she’d been taking little chomps out of him. The island getaway didn’t seem to be helping. At their barn of a Jersey home they could be fifteen rooms apart. In the White Elephant mini-suite they were as close as two fish in a bowl.
And so, with the gray murk of pre-noon Nantucket filling the wide window, she broke out of sleep picturing Kit as one of those hopeless blubbery Melville whales, the ones who preceded Moby Dick, harpooned and strung alongside the predator ship, a fat feast for every shark in the neighborhood. Who could resist such a banquet?
Gert gargled, brushed and flossed. She leaned into the bathroom mirror and flashed her newly whitened teeth at herself. Then she cinched her White Elephant Turkish-towel robe, marched out of the bathroom and found him, exactly as expected, standing by the little nook table, holding out a tray, two cups of coffee, croissants.
Could your man be as dependable as your Maytag?
There was something in that. Gert envisioned the words in Times New Roman Italic, running across the glow of a million laptops. She hit her mental save button and scribbled and sketched on White Elephant stationery. She unsheathed her laptop.
“I thought we came here to get away from all that,” Kit said.
“I didn’t think we came here just to eat,” was her answer. He stood up and went into the bathroom, staying behind the shut door so long it ended the conversation.
When he came out there was a smear of foam on his lips. Toothpaste or shaving cream.
“Look at yourself,” she said.
“I hope it’s not rabies,” Kit replied, lightening the tone to secure peace. He always gave in first. But today, she noticed, his fists stayed clenched. He stared at the Toshiba out on the mahogany desk, ready to boot up and go. She’d set it on top of the leather-bound guest services portfolio.
At the Whaling Museum the guide, a tall mannish lady who was Nantucket-born, stuck out a finger long as a spar as she indicated the different harpoons, scores of them, standing like sentries against the wall. They came in all sizes and styles, some straight and some curved, some with a simple spearhead and some with intricate barbs, depending on the function they had to perform. Only a few were for killing. Most were for softening up the victim or for gaffing and slashing afterwards.
They reminded Gert of the agglomeration of evil implements strewn in a Hollywood prop warehouse she had once toured. She had been shoot-prepping for a big sneaker campaign slated to blanket the networks pre-Halloween. In those days—when the Pumas and the Brunswicks of the world were saying “yes” to her—she had been in the L.A. shoot world all the time, always on the West Coast while Kit stayed east on home-watch. He could work out of the house. All he did anyway was tinker with clip-art and the obvious Macintosh typefaces; nothing more was required for his strata of clients, all the nice nobodies of commerce: the neighborhood bank, the mall Italian restaurant, the brochure and business-card set. He made a pittance compared to her. But, to his credit, everything he did was a write-off, down to the offering of gin and vermouth he stirred so faithfully as Gert, horny from weeks in the Santa Monica sun, would come rumbling down the driveway in the long Lincoln limo, ready to climb all over him before she even ate the olive.
Could your man be as dependable as your Maytag?
There it was again, brought back by the automatic way he held the door for her as they left the dank Whaling Museum and re-entered the light of day. This was the Kit she had built a life on, the big guy who liked to cook and pal around with his own kids, the Kit who thrived on being her life accompanist, the pianist off in the shadows of the stage, as well as her life partner.
As for Kit, the part of the museum tour he said he remembered most was the history of an odor, the guide’s description of the horrible smell rising out of Nantucket during its heyday as the world’s premier whale-processing center. It simply would not be possible, the guide said, for today’s visitors to imagine the enormity of the stench, the reek of rotting whale-flesh and boiling blubber that sank into every crease and crevice.
Kit said he kept thinking about it as they strolled back to the White Elephant for a fried-oyster snack and a change of clothes. He believed a smell that overwhelming couldn’t have disappeared entirely, not even after all these years. He was picturing it festering somewhere under the lush green lawn of the White Elephant when Gert went into the bathroom of their mini-suite and met the unthinkable—a horsefly.
Somehow it had gotten past White Elephant security, the double-thick glass, the climate control system and the arsenal of sprays and solvents applied everywhere in the place morning, noon and night.
Gert threw open the door and cried out.
Kit raced in from the sitting room beyond the bedroom, bursting like a bear through the French doors.
“Kill it,” she commanded.
Normally, he would have done just what she said, with a tissue and a courtly swipe of his paw. This time his face sharpened with irony and he pushed back.
“That fly could be two hundred years old. He could be the last fly left from the whaling days.” The fly dive-bombed and careened off the mirror. Kit shrugged and picked up a newspaper. “You’re only a thousand times its size,” he said.
The horsefly hit the mirror again and Kit struck it an enormous blow. He swung the rolled-up paper as though it were a lead pipe or an axe and the fly the size of an eagle. The look on his face was new to her. It was a Mr. Hyde look.
She watched him put down the newspaper. He seemed to do it in slow motion, reluctantly. He had a look that seemed to say now that he had killed one big fly he wanted to kill more.
“Why don’t you go for a walk,” Gert said, summoning a burst of shrillness to hide the wobble in her voice. “But, first, would you please clean this up?”
The fly was unrecognizable as anything but a gob on the mirror. As Gert examined it she couldn’t help peering at her own face. From where she was looking, the gob seemed to be right on her forehead. She ducked away. She didn’t want a dead fly on her head. It made her shiver, even if it was just an optical illusion.
Kit did what she said, wetting a clutch of Kleenex, removing all evidence and exiting the room. No sooner had he shut the door than she flung open the laptop.
Could your man be as dependable as your Maytag?
Despite Kit’s strangeness—his agitation, whatever—it still seemed to make sense.
So she did what she had been dying to do for hours. She plunged into Google and raced hungrily from site to site, soaking up the patter and the chatter, making her own mental map of the competitive universe, spatially arranging the drivel-rich net communities as though they were so many cereal boxes vying for attention on the supermarket shelf. Only by doing this could she determine if she had a shot.
She turned the Maytag line over and over in her head. Turned it over like a rock under which the real idea was hiding, the tunnel to Wonderland. More than a site, yes, it would be an electronic solar system, a site so compelling other sites would revolve around it like moons. A portal. With a constellation like that you could talk to Paul Allen, Barry Diller; you could tease Viacom. But it needed a handle, a name and tag; the hook and the bait.
Suddenly the Maytag line opened like a door and out marched the bigger line, sassy and fast: Trophy Husband. That was the name. For stay-at-home men and the women who love them. That was the tag.
Gert opened Word and typed it out, along with a few dozen other candidates. But they couldn’t come close. For men, a Trophy was a Barbie on your arm. But for women it would be the household genie on the bottle. She loved it because it cut two ways. Women would log on for tips on how to create the new order and prop it with love, real or otherwise. Men would log on for tips on how to keep buff and keep house—no, not that—on how to run the physical plant.
Next day over his offering of croissants she announced they would be touring old houses. Getting the usual antiquarian blather, the earfuls of mansion gossip from the local historical society—that was all fine with Gert. She could endure it. But her real purpose was to scope out ideas for her planned outbuildings at home. As they headed out, she even popped a White Elephant notepad into her straw bag to sketch a valance or note a color scheme.
She set so fast a pace over the cobblestones they found themselves standing alone at the appointed granite steps, at least ten minutes early. No guide, no group, and only themselves to talk to. A smiling sky as well, optimum conditions for a trial balloon, so Gert let it fly. She gave him the full windup, same as she’d do if he were Michael Eisner and the Disney board, describing the two-gender audience, the unmet need, the glaring hole in the opportunity spectrum. After five minutes in the stratosphere, she brought it home to bread on the table.
“You like driving your Benz, don’t you? You like Emmy in Groton, it’s so obvious you do.”
Sell the benefits, that was her way. She fired them off like bullet-points. Advertising sucked, the agency could not be trusted. If advertising dumped her even the White Elephant would be out of their price range, except in the off-season. If her web idea worked they could buy the White Elephant.
But the only moment that mattered was when she spoke the title – Trophy Husband—and the tag—For stay-at-home men and the women who love them. She filled each syllable with import and vision, as though her voice were a paintbrush, laying down the words in mega-type on a ten-story billboard in Times Square.
Up to that point Kit’s reaction, on balance, was in the applause range. He showed her a lot of nodding and grinning. But when the first two words rolled out, the title words, he blinked hard, as if he had been stung or smacked. Meanwhile the tour crowd gathered and they were swept up into the mansion. It was a musty hulk with a Nantucket name, Meader or Bunker or something.
Their guide, a chilly blue-hair in full Talbots, ushered them into the front room first, because it was the fanciest. Even in the Nineteenth Century, she said, Nantucket entrepreneurs had the American penchant for showcasing their glitz, putting it right in the shop window, so to speak. Gert saw much to make note of in the wainscoting and the interplay between textile and wood, but Kit stood motionless, a smile frozen on his face.
At the top, the guide revealed that, in the old days, the steep structure was known as a “his and hers staircase,” for obvious reasons: at bedtime the husband and wife would walk up together, bid each other adieu and go to their separate rooms.
Gert, catching sight of whimsical bedpost carvings, couldn’t get into the “hers” bedroom fast enough. The rest of the group followed the guide into the husband’s quarters. Kit, however, loitered outside on the stairwell by the so-called “coffin corner.” This was a nook, centered off the stairwell between the bedrooms, where two coffins—his and hers, of course—were stored in a custom built-in, so that when the final breath of either spouse came, the trip from deathbed to dead-box would be as quick and convenient as possible.
“Yankee ingenuity,” the guide had clucked.
Kit was standing there, fixed as a statue, his face to the coffins and back to everything else, as Gert emerged with her notes. Sly as a wisp of smoke she stole behind him and playfully poked her pencil between his shoulder blades. As she poked, she whispered, “Are you my trophy?”
Kit let out a wounded-animal sound and wheeled around.
His collision with her had the force of a car’s bumper hitting a dog or a small deer. It lifted Gert off her feet and sent her into a backwards fall, the kind of fall that can be brutal, even fatal, on such a towering staircase. But a second tour-group was on the way up, charging eagerly to the summit, and Gert merely bounced into a pillow of sun-screened humanity.
“I’m not a trophy,” Kit thundered at her, stopping everyone in their tracks. Later he denied uttering this. And back on the cobblestones he let loose a barrage of apologies that didn’t let up, not for the rest of the day. He said he loved her web idea and kept saying it, even when she asked point-blank if he was lying. At dinner he ordered her a gigantic lobster, de-shelled it for her and tried to feed her bites of the meat with the little lobster fork. She lost all appetite when she saw the fork coming at her in that huge hand.
As they readied for bed in the White Elephant he announced, “I went through what I had to go through and now I’m behind you. I’m behind you a hundred percent.” But Gert could only ponder the double meaning of “behind you” as she felt the throb in her bruises and pictured the height of the staircase. She gritted her teeth and went to bed, next to him, the Mr. Hyde she now knew was in him, struggling with an impossible problem. She posed it as something from an insane math test. She had two eyes to see with. How could she get her sleep, shutting just one of the eyes, while keeping the second eye wide open and watching?
At dawn, in the half-light, Gert was no closer to solving the problem than she had been at midnight. And Kit was standing over her with something, possibly the tray of croissants.
Paul Silverman has worked as a newspaper reporter, sandwich man, olive packer and advertising creative director. His stories have appeared in South Dakota Review, The North Atlantic Review, In Posse, The Pedestal Magazine, The Timber Creek Review, The Front Range Review, The Adirondack Review, The Paumanok Review, The Summerset Review and others. Byline Magazine and The Worcester Review have nominated recent stories to the Pushcart Committee. New work has been accepted by Tampa Review, The Jabberwock Review and Jewish Currents.
Top photo of striped bass courtesy of NCTC Image Library.
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