The snow had finally stopped. Claire and I sipped our coffee by the kitchen window. I was reading the paper by the light of a brilliant morning sun. They had managed to keep National Airport open.
"Let's go to Florida," I said. "Now."
She gave me a withering look. "Florida?"
"Okay, the Bahamas. We can be there by early afternoon."
"There's no way."
"Sure there is. I'm not going to work for a few days, and--"
"Because I'm cracking up, and around the firm if you crack up, then you get a few days off."
"You are cracking up."
"I know. It's kinda dim, really. People give you space, treat you with velvet gloves, kiss your ass. Might as well make the most of it." The tight face returned, and she said, "I can't." And that was the end of that. It was a whim, and I knew she had too many obligations. It was a cruel thing to do, I decided as I returned to the paper, but I didn't feel bad about it. She wouldn't have gone with me under any circumstances.
She was suddenly in a hurry--appointments, classes, rounds, the life of an ambitious young surgical resident. She showered and changed and was ready to go. I drove her to the hospital.
We didn't talk as we inched through the snow-filled streets.
"I'm going to Memphis for a couple of days," I said matter-of-factly when we arrived at the hospital entrance on Reservoir Street. "Oh really," she said, with no discernible reaction. "I need to see my parents. It's been almost a year. I figure this is a good time. I don't do well in snow, and I'm not in the mood for work. Cracking up, you know."
"Well, call me," she said, opening her door. Then she shut it--no kiss, no good-bye, no concern. I watched her hurry down the sidewalk and disappear into the building.
It was over. And I hated to tell my mother.
* * *
My parents were in their early sixties, both healthy and trying gamely to enjoy forced retirement. Dad was an airline pilot for thirty years. Mom had been a bank manager. They worked hard, saved well, and provided a comfortable upper-middle-class home for us. My two brothers and I had the best private schools we could get into.
They were solid people, conservative, patriotic, free of bad habits, fiercely devoted to each other. They went to church on Sundays, the parade on July the Fourth, Rotary Club once a week, and they traveled whenever they wanted.
They were still grieving over my brother Warner's divorce three years earlier. He was an attorney in Atlanta who married his college sweetheart, a Memphis girl from a family we knew. After two kids, the marriage went sour. His wife got custody and moved to Portland. My parents got to see the grandkids once a year, if all went well. It was a subject I never brought up.
I rented a car at the Memphis airport and drove east into the sprawling suburbs where the white people lived. The blacks had the city; the whites, the suburbs. Sometimes the blacks would move into a subdivision, and the whites would move to another one, farther away. Memphis crept eastward, the races running from each other.
My parents lived on a golf course, in a new glass house designed so that every window overlooked a fairway. I hated the house because the fairway was always busy. I didn't express my opinions, though.
I had called from the airport, so Mother was waiting with great anticipation when I arrived. Dad was on the back nine somewhere.
"You look tired," she said after the hug and kiss. It was her standard greeting.
"Thanks, Mom. You look great." And she did. Slender and bronze from her daily tennis and tanning regimen at the country club.
She fixed iced tea and we drank it on the patio, where we watched other retirees fly down the fairway in their golf carts.
"What's wrong?" she said before a minute passed, before I took the first sip. "Nothing. I'm fine."
"Where's Claire? You guys never call us, you know. I haven't heard her voice in two months."
"Claire's fine, Mom. We're both alive and healthy and working very hard."
"Are you spending enough time together?"
"Are you spending any time together?"
She frowned and rolled her eyes with motherly concern. "Are you having trouble?" she asked, on the attack.
"I knew it. I knew it. I could tell by your voice on the phone that something was wrong. Surely you're not headed for a divorce too. Have you tried counseling?"
"No. Slow down."
"Then why not? She's a wonderful person, Michael. Give the marriage everything you have."
"We're trying, Mother. But it's difficult."
"Affairs? Drugs? Alcohol? Gambling? Any of the bad things?"
"No. Just two people going their separate ways. I work eighty hours a week. She works the other eighty."
"Then slow down. Money isn't everything." Her voice broke just a little, and I saw wetness in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Mom. At least we don't have kids."
She bit her lip and tried to be strong, but she was dying inside. And I knew exactly what she was thinking: two down, one to go. She would take my divorce as a personal failure, the same way she broke down with my brother's. She would find some way to blame herself. I didn't want the pity. To move things along to more interesting matters, I told her the story of Mister, and, for her benefit, downplayed the danger I'd been in. If the story made the Memphis paper, my parents had missed it.
"Are you all right?" she asked, horrified.
"Of course. The bullet missed me. I'm here."
"Oh, thank God. I mean, well, emotionally are you all right?"
"Yes, Mother, I'm all together. No broken pieces. The firm wanted me to take a couple of days off, so I came home."
"You poor thing. Claire, and now this."
"I'm fine. We had a lot of snow last night, and it was a good time to leave."
"Is Claire safe?"
"As safe as anybody in Washington. She lives at the hospital, probably the smartest place to be in that city."
"I worry about you so much. I see the crime statistics, you know. It's a very dangerous city."
"Almost as dangerous as Memphis."
We watched a ball land near the patio, and waited for its owner to appear. A stout lady rolled out of a golf cart, hovered over the ball for a second, then shanked it badly.
Mother left to get more tea, and to wipe her eyes.
* * *
I don't know which of my parents got the worst end of my visit. My mother wanted strong families with lots of grandchildren. My father wanted his boys to move quickly up the ladder and enjoy the rewards of our hard-earned success.
Late that afternoon my dad and I did nine holes. He played; I drank beer and drove the cart. Golf had yet to work its magic on me. Two cold ones and I was ready to talk. I had repeated the Mister tale over lunch, so he figured I was just loafing for a couple of days, collecting myself before I roared back into the arena.
"I'm getting kind of sick of the big firm, Dad," I said as we sat by the third tee, waiting for the foursome ahead to clear. I was nervous, and my nervousness irritated me greatly. It was my life, not his.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Means I'm tired of what I'm doing."
"Welcome to the real world. You think the guy working a drill press in a factory doesn't get tired of what he's doing? At least you're getting rich."
So he took round one, almost by a knockout. Two holes later, as we stomped through the rough looking for his ball, he said, "Are you changing jobs?"
"Thinking about it."
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know. It's too early. I haven't been looking for another position."
"Then how do you know the grass is greener if you haven't been looking?" He picked up his ball and walked off.
I drove alone on the narrow paved trail while he stalked down the fairway chasing his shot, and I wondered why that gray-haired man out there scared me so much. He had pushed all of his sons to set goals, work hard, strive to be Big Men, with everything aimed at making lots of money and living the American dream. He had certainly paid for anything we needed.
Like my brothers, I was not born with a social conscience. We gave offerings to the church because the Bible strongly suggests it. We paid taxes to the government because the law requires it. Surely, somewhere in the midst of all this giving some good would be done, and we had a hand in it. Politics belonged to those willing to play that game, and besides, there was no money to be made by honest people. We were taught to be productive, and the more success we attained, the more society would benefit, in some way. Set goals, work hard, play fair, achieve prosperity.
He double-bogeyed the fifth hole, and was blaming it on his putter when he climbed into the cart. "Maybe I'm not looking for greener pastures," I said. "Why don't you just go ahead and say what you're trying to say?" he said. As usual, I felt weak for not facing the issue boldly.
"I'm thinking about public interest law."
"What the hell is that?"
"It's when you work for the good of society without making a lot of money."
"What are you, a Democrat now? You've been in Washington too long."
"There are lots of Republicans in Washington. In fact, they've taken over."
We rode to the next tee in silence. He was a good golfer, but his shots were getting worse. I'd broken his concentration.
Stomping through the rough again, he said, "So some wino gets his head blown off and you gotta change society. Is that it?"
"He wasn't a wino. He fought in Vietnam."
Dad flew B-52's in the early years of Vietnam, and this stopped him cold. But only for a second. He wasn't about to yield an inch. "One of those, huh?"
I didn't respond. The ball was hopelessly lost, and he wasn't really looking. He flipped another onto the fairway, hooked it badly, and away we went.
"I hate to see you blow a good career, son," he said. "You've worked too hard. You'll be a partner in a few years."
"You need some time off, that's all."
That seemed to be everybody's remedy.
* * *
I took them to dinner at a nice restaurant. We worked hard to avoid the topics of Claire, my career, and the grandkids they seldom saw. We talked about old friends and old neighborhoods. I caught up on the gossip, none of which interested me in the least.
I left them at noon on Friday, four hours before my flight, and I headed back to my muddled life in D.C.