Great Guy
   by Edward H. Garcia Edward H. Garcia

Edward H. Garcia is retired from teaching composition, literature, and creative writing in the Dallas County Community College District. He has published many reviews and articles in The Dallas Morning News and other publications, including The Texas Observer, The Texas Humanist, Pawn Review, Texas Books in Review, Tex!, County Line Magazine, and Southwest Historical Quarterly. He is represented in Texas in Poetry 2, Texas Short Stories 2, Literary Dallas, and in two anthologies of writing by DCCCD faculty and staff, Out of Dallas and Voices from Within. Some of his poems have been translated into Albanian and published in an anthology of American poetry: Poezia: bashkekohore amerikane. He lives on the upper east side of Texas with his wife Rica.

Thomas Oliver remembers someone called him a “great guy.” It was one of his friends—long ago when they were in their 30s—and he had probably just helped the friend move or install a water heater. The friend, Bob, maybe, or Wendell, had clapped him on the arm and said, “You know, Tom, you’re a great guy. You’re the guy I can always ask and you’ll drop anything to help.” Thomas had almost said, “Yeah, a great guy, but a terrible husband,” but he didn’t want to burden Bob—he is almost certain it was Bob—with his guilt. He just said, “You’d do the same for me.” But then Bob was a terrible husband, too.

Thomas Oliver has been thinking a lot about his wife, his late wife, lately. Sometimes he slips in conversation and says “ex-wife,” but she was never that. Came close a couple of times, but neither could quite pull the trigger. Once there had been another man she almost left him for, and more than once there had been women he could have left for. One woman’s husband had picked up the signs and moved them to another state. Neither she nor Thomas had been ready to commit and both let the relationship go, though the letting go had been more on his side than hers, it now seems to him.

Terrible husband is what his wife Joanie would have called him, all the while putting up with him. He guesses she didn’t think she could do better, except for the one time that he knew about. She always figured she was going to be left. There was the fiancé in high school who broke up with her and then married the next girl and lived happily ever after. Of course, that’s probably what their marriage looked like from the outside, so maybe the fiancé was miserable, too, and thought if only he had stuck with Joanie, who lived happily ever after with her husband, etc.

Thomas wouldn’t call himself great, but he does think of himself as a nice guy—a basically honest person who more often than not would do the right thing. He thinks of the time he took that tall, skinny woman to bed—he was out of town at a conference and she was available. She had put on a negligee that made him a little sad, and he had wondered what his father would think of what he was about to do. There was no dramatic movie moment when he realized how wrong it was—he already knew that—and pulled back and told her he couldn’t do it, that it just wasn’t right and he hoped she understood and could someday forgive him for leading her on. No, he went ahead and fucked her, though he didn’t stay the night. It was that ability to see exactly what he was doing—that this nice, skinny lady was lonely and horny and vulnerable and he was just horny—to see the moral and practical implications of what he was doing, to hear his father’s disapproving voice, and to do it anyway—it was this ability that made him a terrible husband, and, thinking about it now, not such a nice guy.

One aspect of getting older, Thomas Oliver reflects, is the loss of illusions. He finds it harder and harder to maintain regrets about the past. Romeo and Juliet would be dead by now, even if the message about the sleeping potion had gotten through, and they would have gotten bored with each other, and their kids would probably have been awful to them. Same way with Hamlet and the athlete dying young. Fuck the skinny lady, don’t fuck the skinny lady. By now, she could have died of cancer or lost whatever happened or didn’t happen to Alzheimer’s. He thinks of the quotation from Marlowe that Eliot used, “Thou hast committed/ Fornication: but that was in another country,/ And besides, the wench is dead.” The past is another country. And the future is too, a much poorer one—a third-world country of stunted hopes, poverty, desolate landscapes. Oh, well . . . oh, well, he thinks.

It wasn’t the women, although that would have been enough. Not counting mild flirtations, there weren’t really that many. (He has the feeling he might be letting himself off the hook, as usual.) It was not loving her. Or not enough for long enough. Because of that, he had preferred to be alone or with a friend than to be with her. He would leave work early, not for a tryst, but to go to the movies alone, sit up closer than she liked. Even movies she would have liked. And then he felt aggrieved if she objected, if she didn’t want to be left alone. If you really loved someone, wouldn’t you want to spend as much time as possible with them? She never asked that, but she should have. Maybe if she had, he could have brought himself to say, “Yes, and I guess that means I don’t really love you,” and they could have both gone on to lives with the “possibles” that were often around. But she never asked, and he somehow took that as permission to keep living his own life and to keep resenting her very natural resentment of him.

That is so clear to him now, but it wasn’t then. Years ago, he walked daily by a small store with a sign in the parking lot that said, “Customer parking. Non-customer cars will be towed at owner’s expense.” Every day he would think how odd that the store’s owner would pay to have the cars towed. Then one day, after having walked by the sign dozens of times, it was suddenly obvious to him that it was the car owner who would pay for the towing. And then he couldn’t imagine how that wasn’t clear to him before that. Thomas Oliver looks back at his marriage to Joanie and the sin of not loving her very much with that same feeling. How could he not have seen that her expectations of him were perfectly reasonable? He feels ashamed of having tried to lawyer her out of her feelings. He had been good at talking and arguing in those days, and, more often than not, he had prevailed.

By the time they were in their late forties, Joanie had begun to drink more than was good for her and to sleep more and more. He would make his own supper while she took her after-work nap, and they seldom went to bed at the same time. She might call up to the study that she was going to bed, and he often fell asleep on the couch with the tv on, waking at two or three in the morning to turn off the set and stagger downstairs and go chastely to bed. They still talked about politics—which they mostly agreed on—and books and movies. They would make each other laugh about work gossip. When they went out to dinner with other couples, they would pass back and forth the telling of old stories about their lives, about how they met, about their first apartment—passing the conversational baton one to the other in a practiced manner. They must have looked “happy,” though their closest friends knew better. Slowly, over time, Thomas began to notice that there were fewer real possibles for him. There were women who would have had him, he was pretty sure, but he no longer was convinced that life with anyone else would be much better. What if it was worse? Joanie, at least, left him alone. They had their history and their safe topics and their shared desire not to talk about unpleasant things. He had his afternoon movies and the occasional fling—out of town with women who didn’t want to leave their marriages either. He isn’t sure what she had—her naps and the buzz she maintained most evenings, perhaps. He didn’t notice her much.

And then things started getting better. Maybe he had lost the energy for dissatisfaction. It wasn’t that he looked forward to being with Joanie, but he didn’t dread it. Thomas sees now how insulting and niggling that sounds—as if her value depended on his view of her and he were doing his wife a favor by tolerating her. Nevertheless, that’s how he experienced it. Maybe it was the exhaustion of middle age and of maintaining hopes for something beyond what they were stuck with. She changed, too. She was softer, less critical, less suspicious; and there was less to be suspicious of—though which came first he couldn’t say. They had always liked each other at some level, and when they no longer hated each other for not being something they weren’t, they settled into a pleasant camaraderie. No one else shared so much with either of them. The places they had been, the couples they dated, the children they weren’t able to have.

They were both reasonably attractive still and could have looked elsewhere, but without talking about it, they had together decided that this was about as good as it was likely to be, that they might as well make the best of it. And the best of it was not so bad—nothing electric, of course, but pleasant and companionable. When one night they happened to go to bed at the same and slipped into each other’s arms and drifted into sex—slow, undemanding, and considerate—they didn’t speak of it the next morning, but Thomas found himself thinking about it and smiling. He couldn’t remember the last time that had happened and never like that. After that, they began to go to bed together almost every night and every week or two—never more often than that—by some secret signal they would come together. If she “finished” before him, she would stay with him until he did, and he would do the same for her. Both must have felt that the life they had come to was too fragile to sustain comment because they never spoke of it. If Thomas’s friends noticed anything, they never spoke of it to him. And the sex was just a part of it, not the most important part. The walks they began to take together—“we need to exercise more—use it or lose it,” one or the other had said. The television shows they looked forward to seeing together—“our shows,” they sometimes called them—were a part of it. And the meals they planned and made and cleaned up after together were also part of this new life.

And then one day, Joanie said, “I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose it.”

He looked up from reading and asked, “What do you mean?”

“At work I’ve been noticing it lately.”

“Is there someone you’re having trouble with? Just give me the word, and I’ll kick his ass. Unless he’s really big and young.”

She smiled barely and started again, “I’m afraid I’m losing my mind, you know, forgetting things. Somebody will ask me for a phone number I’ve known for years, and I just blank. Or I’ll get on the elevator and feel unsure about which floor I work on. I’ve worked in that building for 20 years! How can I forget the damn floor?”

“Ok, so you forget a couple of things—you’re distracted, you’re busy, everyone forgets when you get past a certain age. Hell, I forget stuff all the time. It’s natural.”

“It’s not like that. I wish it were, but it’s not.” She was starting to cry.

He saw that she was really scared about it, and said, “I don’t think it’s anything, but why don’t we have it checked out? Have you been worrying about this for a long time?”

She nodded. “Months.”

“I wish you had told me.”

“I was afraid to tell myself, much less someone else. Even you. Things have been going so well lately. I didn’t want to mess it up.”

“You’re not going to mess anything up. I promise you that.”

It was a promise he couldn’t keep. For months she was more or less herself, but soon she had to quit her job, and he no longer felt ok leaving her alone when he went to work or to the store. She would come into the room where he was reading and announce, “I’m vacuuming.” To his puzzled look, she would say—with good humor, thankfully—“Not vacuuming. The other thing. Taping a program. On the television.” Another time she came to him with a worried look and said, “There’s something on my desk, and I don’t know what it is.” It was the telephone. By the time they agreed that it was time for her to go live someplace where she would be taken care of, she was past objecting. “I know this is hard on you,” she would say again and again. By then he had quit making “hard on” jokes when she said it. She wouldn’t have known what he was talking about.

He came to see her almost every day. At first, she waited for him near the front door of the residence—“the rez” they called it. Later she called it “here” and was in her room and surprised to see him when he arrived. They would sit mostly in silence, sometimes with the tv running. If he asked her a question, she would answer, “Yes, yes,” but he could tell by the look in her eyes that she didn’t know what he was asking. Eventually, she seldom recognized him or could call his name, though something in her knew that it was appropriate for him to be there. He didn’t come every day, but most days, though he wasn’t sure it mattered to her at all. One day when they were sitting in silence, with the television sound barely audible, she asked, “Where are the children?” He paused for a moment before he said, “They were here yesterday. Don’t you remember?” He doesn’t know yet why he said that. Perhaps it seemed kinder than to say, “You never had children. I’m it.”

“I forget a lot these days,” she said and smiled ruefully.

“You had a great time. You were happy when they visited.”

“Yes, yes.” She nodded with a vague smile.

“They brought the grandchildren. Little Sarah is just like you. She’s going to be a great beauty.”

“Sarah. Yes.”

“Matthew is a pistol. I finally had to take him down to the lobby and get him something to drink; he was making so much noise.” She smiled at the idea.

“You know Sarah and Matthew?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re my grandchildren, too.”

“There’s somebody I love. Was he here, too?”

Who could that be, he thought? He didn’t think she could mean the old him, but maybe she had loved him and remembered that. Or maybe it was someone else. It didn’t matter. “Yes,” he said. “He was here, and he still loves you very much.”

“I’m a little confused,” she said.

“Yes, I get confused, too. It’s a confusing world. Maybe you should rest now.”

After that they talked often of the children and grandchildren and the man she loved. It seemed to give her comfort that they had been there even though she didn’t remember. He found himself making up more and more backstory for the characters. They became so real to him that he sometimes would think that he wished the children could come and spell him when he was worn out from visiting her. Then he would laugh to himself and wonder who the dotty one was.

One day an attendant took him aside and asked him about the children. “She’s always asking about the children. I hate to tell her they never come visit.”

“Just tell her they came yesterday and that she had a great time with them.” He paused. “There are no children. We never had children, but she doesn’t remember that. It makes her happy.” The attendant looked skeptical but agreed.

Finally, there was no good reason for him to visit and yet he did. He surprised himself. No one would have blamed him for moving on—for going on with his life or however else they might put it. He was “free” finally—many years ago he had fantasized about that freedom—the divorce he couldn’t bring himself to ask for, the tragic accident which would take her life and leave him bereft but available. He had been able to rationalize and excuse his affairs when it mattered to Joanie, but now he found himself reluctant to act on the possibilities that presented themselves or that his friends and even her friends brought to his attention. More than one woman around his age and even a bit younger offered (obliquely usually, directly sometimes) to comfort him, and yet he passed. They probably thought he was still “grieving,” but that wasn’t really it. His grief, if that’s what you would call it, was for himself, his regret about what he might have been for her when it still mattered to her. At the thought of her death, he felt nothing that could be called grief or fear or even relief. It would happen sooner or later and then he would see what happened next.

Perhaps it was his father’s voice that kept him “true” to her, even in the lost last days. He smiles at the word. What an absurd way to think about himself and Joanie. Maybe it was just a stunt that he could not have sustained if she had lingered for a long time. He is pretty sure he wasn’t doing it for an audience—the nurses, his colleagues, their friends—though he has struggled with that thought. He was like a long-time smoker who finds it easy to quit, much to his and everyone else’s surprise. It was ok to visit her daily or every other day. It was ok to talk to her about her non-existent children and grandchildren and then not to talk at all. It was not the torture, nobly endured, that his friends assumed. It was ok.

Then one day it was over. She forgot how to breathe or her heart forgot how to pump. Whatever it was, she died. The friends who had long ago quit coming to see her came to the funeral and offered their condolences. “I’m sorry for your loss” won the consoling murmur contest Thomas held in his head. He felt sorry for their losses, for whatever guilt they might feel. Now he was playing to this audience. He let them project their feelings on him. It would have been unkind and confusing to tell them he was ok.

And yet here he is, stuck in the present. He thinks of the line Eliot lifted from Kipling: “Here I am, an old man in a dry month, being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.” Minus the boy. Maybe his imaginary grandson could be the boy. He thinks that 30 years of teaching high school boys English literature has amounted to having a few dozen quotations rolling around in his head. “Some work of noble note” before he died was what Tennyson’s Ulysses had been after. He was going to sail out “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Tennyson was a young guy when he imagined the old man’s desire, so he didn’t know what it was really like to be an old guy looking at diminishing days. Ulysses would really have said, “I think I’ll stay home and have some hot cocoa. Catch a nap. Maybe get drunk on two beers tonight and turn in early.” Or maybe that’s what old heroes do—strive and not yield.

Thomas Oliver is sure he’s not a hero or a great guy, sitting on his back deck, the first of the two beers in his hand. Still, he likes the sound of “some work of noble note.” He’ll try to dream about it tonight. And maybe he’ll do something about it tomorrow or think about doing something about it. There really is a lot of time left. And there’s always the second beer.

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