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Kerry Zukus

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The Fourth House
by Kerry Zukus   

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Publisher:  Madison Park Press Type: 


Copyright:  June 1, 2007 ISBN-13:  9781582882482

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Book of the Month Club
Doubleday Book Club
Kerry Zukus -- The Official Stalker Site

THE FOURTH HOUSE is a sweeping love story with Oscar Wilde-type plot twists that will keep you riveted to each and every page.

Set against the desolate backdrop of a small Pennsylvania coalmining town that has all but closed up shop, THE FOURTH HOUSE deals with the issues of escape, ambition, secrets, lies, forgiveness, sexual mores, and coming home again in an insightful, yet humorous fashion.

THE FOURTH HOUSE tells the tale of a young Philadelphia urologist who returns to his small, quirky hometown and falls in love with the girl next door, who had been like a kid sister to him when they grew up together. But instead of family celebrations upon the announcement of their engagement, both families – best friends forever – suddenly treat the impending marriage as something that must be stopped at all cost. But why?

Chapter One

Two teenage boys stood atop a black mountain and looked down upon the glimmering lights of their kingdom. Each with a bottle of beer in hand, they toasted themselves and the good fortune of being alive on such a night. Far enough from the small town below, the stars above twinkled unimpeded by ambient streetlight. It was summer and the night air was cool, but not too so. Since they took the advice of the older guy every underage teen must know in order to get booze and bought Kaiers instead of the more expensive Yuengling, they had more than enough to get one hell of a buzz on. Life was good.
Indeed, the town below was their kingdom, as each successive class of teens had that one year where they seemed to command all that they surveyed. And within that class were always the chosen few who ruled via divine province over all others. The two boys on the black mountain were among those blessed. They were handsome, athletic, witty, funny, and danced better than any other boys they knew. Girls dug them and they knew it. They were cool cats.
As the night wore on, they retreated back to their sleeping bags, drank some more beer, and discussed the deepest concerns of the day.
“This Kaiers ain’t bad.”
“I think it’s because we brought it up early and put it in the stream. Even the worst beer in the world tastes better when it’s freezing cold. When it’s cold, it just flows; you know what I mean? It just flows,” and he kept saying the word “flows” as if it was a magical, almost religious thing. So awe-inspiring was this word as it described the perfect beer that it began to sound like he was pronouncing it wrong, contorting his mouth and adding syllables that did not belong.
The shorter of the two boys made himself more comfortable. “When I sleep out, I like to get naked. It feels great.”
“Do you sleep that way all the time?”
“Naw, I share a room with my brother. He’d tell on me.”
“Your brother’s a prick sometimes.”
“Yeah, I know. He’s always getting me in trouble.” Unabashed and unrestrained, the shorter boy stripped to total nudity in the moonlight, not even exhibiting the modesty to do so within his sleeping bag.
“What are you doing?”
“I told you; I’m sleeping naked.”
“Yeah, but prancing around like that, someone could see you.”
“Man, we’re outside of town, up on a mountain in the woods. There’s nobody around to see us. You think people are in their houses with binoculars looking to see if there’s guys dancing around naked up here?” To make his point, the boy did, indeed, start dancing around, his genitalia flopping about in a way that looked almost painful.
“Stop that. You’re gross.”
“Hey, I feel free. I’m gonna go to one of those nudist camps.”
“They have these camps where people dance around naked all day. They’re called nudist camps.”
“No they don’t.”
“Sure they do. I’ve seen pictures.”
“I’ve seen pictures of naked people, too, but I didn’t know they had a camp for them.”
“Yeah. And it’s not just pretty girls either, like in Playboy. It’s, like, everyday people, just sitting around, reading the paper, mowing the lawn…”
“Bullshit. You can’t mow the lawn naked. You’d hurt yourself.”
“I don’t know. So maybe I’m making up the lawn-mowing part. But they really do have these nudist camps.”
“Man, I’d love to sneak up to one and watch.”
“Yeah, I hear there’s one up near Erie.”
“Erie. That’s pretty far away.”
“Yeah, but if we knew there was a nudist camp there, we could borrow a car sometime and drive up and see if we could see somethin’.”
“Yeah, that would be cool.”

There were neither three houses nor four. Rather, there was simply block after block of row houses built in pairs going on for about half a mile, each almost human-like with identically matching arms and legs. But no brain.
The homes resided on Good Street; a joke if ever there was one. Not even “Good” spelled “Goode,” or even some ethnic variation such as “Gud,” but just good old “Good,” as in “Good morning, Loser.” For humor’s sake, Jordan wished he had not only lived on Good Street, but down the road in Hometown rather than in Mountain City. The routine might have rivaled the best of Abbott and Costello:
“So where are you from?”
“Yes, your hometown.”
“And what is it?”
“That’s what I’m asking you. What is your hometown?”
“Must you constantly repeat the question?”
“What question?”
“Forget it. What street do you live on?”
“Good Street.”
“I’m glad you like it. Does it have a name?”
“Good Street.”
“So you said.”
The vocabulary conundrum was enhanced two steps further during his undergrad years when he attended Ursinus College (usually mispronounced as “Your-sinus”), in Collegeville.
“Where do you go to school?”
“Is my nose running?”
“I don’t think so.”
“And where is your college located?”
Not to single out poor Ursinus, but even big Penn State was located in the not very originally monikered town of State College.
“And where is your state college?”
“State College.”
“That’s what I asked.”
And on and on. But back to the little bungalows in not Hometown, but Mountain City. Another observation, which could only emanate from someone from the outside looking in, regarded their architectural reason for existence. With so much unused land spreading out in every direction, here were these teeny little half-homes squashed up against each other with yards the size of postage stamps in front, and an envelope in the rear.
Historically, most of these black silt hamlets were mining towns; communities formed only because of the existence of anthracite coal beneath them. The mining company owned the land upon which stood the assorted shanties built for the poor immigrant workers they employed. As many of these clusters were named after the company or some mining term, they became known as Shaft, Cork, Tunnelville, Rocktown, or anything one could think of involving a black hole in the dark ground. This was the world into which Dr. Jordan Matino was born.
Despite the somewhat condescending prose with which Jordan or those who escaped the locale referred to the place, it was still home. In most cases, the remaining inhabitants actually encouraged that escape. “Escaping the mines” was the original cry when mining was one of the only occupations one could pursue. It was also a fifty-fifty proposition for death; sometimes quick, sometimes slow. Once the mining industry itself left town and double-digit unemployment took its place, the flight was simply to bigger and better things.
Jordan’s parents’ generation had taken enormous pride in merely graduating from high school. A few even managed to attend college: “Attend” being the key word, as completion of college was a much rarer accomplishment. The local shopping mall was staffed almost entirely by those who had the honor of “attending” Penn State, Bloomsburg, or Kutztown if only briefly during their college-aged years.
The move towards more frequent college completion began around the generation of Jordan Matino, Mountain City Regional High School Class of 1986. Prior to that, one of those rarest-of-the-rare from the previous generation who had managed to complete a college education was Rick George. And Rick George hated Jordan Matino.
This last statement could never quite be confirmed, is most likely overstated, and even more likely existed only in the mind of Jordan Matino.
Rick George was Jordan’s next-door neighbor as well as his godfather. Mountain City is a place where being chosen as a godparent is still taken quite seriously. This, along with the neighborly proximity, closeness of family intertwinements, and the fact that Jordan grew up without a father, is what drove Jordan Matino to expect so much from a man who gave him so little.
As time went by, Jordan tried to put a finger on exactly what it was that made this man, this personality-plus man, give so much to the rest of the world and so little to him. Rick George possessed exceptional amounts of gregarity and charm. That and his well-groomed style made him seem as out of place in Mountain City as a brand new, hand-polished Jaguar in a demolition derby.
Every day of his adult life, Rick walked ten blocks to work as if for the need to strut. His clothes, like everyone else’s in Mountain City, were obviously purchased off the rack. Yet on him, they looked custom made. The walking was exercise, which kept him in great physical shape for his age; but it also conveyed an attitude. Rick George gave a big “Hi-hello” to every man, woman, and child in Mountain City. One might have thought he was campaigning for something.
Rick was a pharmacist. With no intent to insult others in this profession, he was, within this pharmacy and this town, a man who usually only poured pills from one big bottle into a smaller bottle and handed them, smilingly, to some little old lady in a babushka. That was Rick George’s job and life in Mountain City, Pennsylvania, population 4,000 and shrinking.
Rick had attempted but failed to become a doctor and did not even own the little drugstore. Southern’s Pharmacy was still owned by Cal Southern, who was well into his eighties and hardly worked anymore. Most of the town had to wonder why Cal hadn’t retired completely and sold the business to Rick, who had been with him since the day Rick got out of pharmacy school. Some thought that cocky, flirty Rick simply had a personality that rubbed Cal the wrong way, being as how it ran so contrary to his own boring, pedestrian ways. Some had even told tales of the old man bossing Rick around right in front of customers, just to show whoever might be wondering, exactly who was the top dog in that gone-to-the-dogs little mom and pop drugstore. That had to make someone with an ego as big as Rick’s a little sore. But why did he only seem to take it out on his godson?
When pressed, Jordan admitted to his mother, the only person with whom he ever discussed it, that he might just be overly sensitive about the whole thing. Hate usually involves some act of gross severity, like a punch to the jaw or a kick to the groin. Or in a more civilized setting, perhaps an anonymous call to the IRS or the local police over some petty nothing. No, this hate was more ambivalent, more a name hung upon a gut feeling that someone unquestionably disliked you. Frankly, even the thought of Rick George becoming a surrogate father to him in his real father’s absence made Jordan chuckle derisively.
Jordan’s father had not died, but had disappeared shortly after Jordan’s birth. Perhaps he was dead by now, as information was quite limited. No one spoke of seeing him in decades.
The story Jordan had been handed was that his father had gotten into some financial quandaries, compounded by your basic run-of-the-mill marital troubles. His solution, rather than to stay and persevere, was to disappear. He was eventually found and the fiscal matters somehow negotiated. But his lack of desire to remain as a husband and father had been blatantly exposed. He then vanished for good, not under a cloak of darkness or through some obfuscation, but by simply packing up his things and walking out the front door in broad daylight.
Jordan often wondered how that scene had played out. Did he kiss him good-bye? Were there tears? He’d been far too young to remember. He had also forgotten to ask.
Nonetheless, out the door he went and that was the last anyone saw or spoke of him. Opal Matino bragged of her insistence that she and her baby receive no child support or alimony from the man. In later years, Jordan came to look at this source of Dutch pride as being, in practical terms, financial foolishness. How much better could they have lived? How much easier could things have been?
Instead, Opal Matino worked job after job, usually a few of them at a time, in order to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Jordan’s maternal grandparents, who lived a few blocks away before they both died last year, helped with Jordan’s care. So did the Steins next door and, to a lesser degree, his godmother, Eleanor George. For those were the three adjacent houses of Jordan’s youth: his house being in-between his godparents’, the Georges, on one side; and Jack and Mildred Stein’s on the other.
In Jordan’s opinion, the Steins were more suited to being named his godparents than the Georges. Not that he had any trouble with his godmother, Eleanor. She was, in fact, an early source of his adolescent sexual fantasies. Of course, this may have been a rather Freudian impediment to his ever accepting her as a mother and parent. But Eleanor George was a rather perfect fit to swaggering Rick. Jordan could easily picture them as the homecoming king and queen of some long ago year. Eleanor did not grandstand like Rick, but looking as good as she did, it wasn’t necessary. Doing so would have also prompted far too much gossip in a town as small as theirs. Eleanor had wavy, wild, just-had-sex blond hair topping sleepy cat eyes, a flawless nose and chin, bookended with a model’s high cheekbones. And those weren’t even her best assets. Eleanor George, looking into the face of sixty, was still a babe.
It was the recent deaths of his maternal grandparents that made today, Thanksgiving, feel strange and awkward for both Jordan and his mother. There is an old sight gag, used in far too many films dealing with the über-wealthy, where two people sit at a mile-long dining table looking and feeling absurd at the ostentatiousness of it all. The Matino’s kitchen table was modest and fit only four comfortably, six if you put in the optional leaf. But for a holiday meal that had always featured four, it felt just as inhospitable as if it were made for forty.
This was Jordan and Opal’s first Thanksgiving alone and while they had visited one another since the funerals, today felt wanting and empty. Their conversation was somewhat strained, as if this was another black crepe day.
Thanksgiving was not just any meal, but one of those circle-the-date feasts that brought Jordan back from Philadelphia, where he was now living. Philadelphia was just far enough away for bachelor Jordan to feel like an independent adult, yet close enough that he could be helpful to his still-single mother.
Opal Matino made every attempt to have this be a replica of all the Thanksgiving meals her mother had made before. There was the requisite turkey, of course. Beyond that, though, things took on a more local flavor. The gravy had giblets, as did the stuffing. Mincemeat pie drenched in whiskey joined the traditional yet commonplace pumpkin. And where else but in “the region,” as ex-pats affectionately referred to it, could one find kielbasa served as a complimentary second meat to the turkey?
Jordan had always felt it was the rampant alcoholism of the area that set it apart from more refined society. Yet discussions with people from the full gamut of the socioeconomic and geographic expanses of the world made him realize it was, in fact, the kielbasa. It was served endlessly.
Jordan broached the obvious. “Strange this year, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” his mother replied wistfully, “just you and me.”
Each smiled sadly. They were close and were both equally close to Jordan’s late grandparents. Because of their life arrangements, with Opal working all the time and relinquishing many of her parental duties to her mother, she and Jordan were sometimes as much like sister and brother as mother and son. This was further enhanced by there being just the two of them, both of them only-children. Their lack of siblings was truly odd in an area known for its big families, even in the post-baby boom era.
Opal Zimmerman Matino had never seen her parents share a bed. Not once. From the time she was born, she could only recall her father working third shift: nights, and her mother keeping normal daytime hours. Their bedroom had two small single beds. Once Opal married, her mother moved out of that room and into Opal’s old room. She said it was to escape her husband’s snoring. That certainly raised questions in Opal’s mind, since their schedules were so different. When exactly would they find themselves in that room together in order for his snoring to bother her?
The night-shift situation, the twin beds, the flight from their shared room and her father’s gentlemanly yet strict prudishness in all matters involving sex and sexuality, often led Opal to wonder how on earth she had ever been conceived by these two. Nevertheless, here she was, alive and certainly not adopted unless the entire world had been searched for the ideal baby to grow into the particular nuances of both her parents’ physical and temperamental features, which was highly doubtful.
Jordan’s situation was easier to explain. No man; no more babies. Opal dated off and on while he was growing up, which was a lot stranger back then in Mountain City than it probably is today. No other kid’s mother was going out on dates at the time, at least any that he knew.
Jordan was never too wild about the men his mother brought home. Once older, he tried to analyze his behavior towards them in an attempt to judge whether or not he had a complex about the whole thing. Was he predisposed towards disliking these suitors? Jordan took pride in being very self-aware and his analysis provided him with this conclusion: No, he was not subconsciously sabotaging his mother’s relationships. She was dating bozos, or at least borderline bozos.
Thankfully there were no full-fledged melodramatic scenes in these dalliances. No drunks or batterers which, given the male talent pool in the vicinity, was quite an accomplishment. It was more like a short parade of double-knit, leisure-suited, white-shoed dorks without the slightest idea of how to have an intelligent conversation with an erudite person of any age. Some were good for a bag of candy or a game of catch, but little more. They lasted awhile and then disappeared.
On the nights when she was to break up with them, she would confide in Jordan her plans and ask, “Did he mind?” Mind? Christ, he could care less.
The thing he never really thought about, basic as it was, was whether she might ever marry one of these paramours. It could happen; it could have happened. Yet these boyfriends of her’s were nothing more than background scenery. They were simply her hobby, no different than stamp collecting or antiquing. But no bozo, background scenery, or hobby was on the scene today, nor had there been in a year or two.
Jordan thought his mother might be getting a bit weepy-eyed, so he gave her a sincere, loving smile. Big hugs and long dissertations weren’t necessary. Germans or Dutch or whatever-the-hell they were weren’t prone to big showy displays of affection. Volcanic anger on occasion, yes, but they weren’t overly demonstrative with other emotions.
German or Dutch? For an area with major distinctions made between various Slavic countries of origin: Polish or Russian, Lithuanian or Czech, those of Germanic descent alternately referred to themselves as Dutch one day, German the next. Most of them had no idea and could care less, since tracing one’s roots was a hobby just starting to catch on around there. The confusion most likely stemmed from their phonetic-only translation of the native word, “Deutsche.” Thereby, Pennsylvania Dutch, in most cases really meant, Pennsylvania German.
Saint John’s Church, attended regularly by the denizens of all three houses, might now be referred to as a sanctuary of the United Church of Christ, but prior to that it was affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church. Opal Zimmerman became, at age thirteen, the chapel’s organist and at age eighteen, choir director; positions she continued to hold for her entire life. Jordan sang in the choir, as did Rick George and his only daughter, Heather. The Steins were stalwart parishioners as well, though neither they nor their three sons were musically inclined.
For Jordan, singing in his mother’s choir was an experience marred only by his godfather, Rick. Each Sunday and at each rehearsal, Jordan knew that he would have to see him and sit by him. There’s good-natured joking and then there are cutting remarks that are thoughtless and meant to cause hurt, and Rick always seemed good for the latter.
Rick George was considered the best singer at St. John’s, although Jordan could never understand why. Yes, unlike most people in small town choirs, he could carry a tune. But he had this manner of singing, completely germane to his personality, which sounded as if he were channeling Dean Martin. While others sang, Rick George crooned. As Dean Martin, at least to Jordan’s knowledge, never released an album of gospel music, Rick’s artistic approach was quite incongruous with the material being served. Jordan approached choral music in the more traditional fashion and, thanking Opal’s genes, was quite good at it. Perhaps therein lay the rub. Jealousy; that had to be it. Rick once aspired to be a doctor but, for whatever reason, had settled for becoming a pharmacist. Jordan had become a doctor. Add to this list Rick being the aging Clark Gable of little Mountain City, while Jordan was a young, handsome, single physician in Philadelphia with no trouble attracting the ladies.
The jealousy theory seemed applicable for about ninety-eight percent of all conflicts Jordan had with his godfather and that might be about as good as theories get. The two-percent margin of error was based upon the fact that Jordan could never remember a time when Rick George was not a son of a bitch, bully prick to him. Jordan had not joined the adult choir until his voice changed after puberty. He was still young enough to recall events long before that and could never remember a time when Rick George acted any nicer towards him.
All this talk of Rick George might lead one to believe that he was a major focus in Jordan Matino’s life, but truly he was not. Especially now, now when life was medicine and Philadelphia, cash in pocket and lovely young ladies. Today, Rick was more of an irritant associated with a place, the place Jordan was in right now: his hometown. It was more akin to an oft-frequented gas station manned by a friendly halfwit who always told the same lame joke. Yes, just an irritant.
Like most in the region, the Matinos served Thanksgiving dinner as a noontime meal. Upon finishing dessert, Jordan cleared and Opal set about packaging leftovers. The house was small and the smell of cooking could literally get nauseating, especially once one was stuffed full, as Jordan was wont to do. Telling his mother he was going for a walk, she replied, “Good!” in the enthusiastic way one would respond to a loved one announcing they were quitting smoking or going on a much needed diet. While Opal Matino was a single workingwoman who dated and had only one now-grown child, she still had a lot of classic “Mom” in her. She was downright hokey at times.
Bouncing down the wooden front steps of his childhood home on this brisk yet pleasant fall afternoon, Jordan was only slightly surprised to not find more activity outside. Eleanor George or Mildred Stein perhaps, sitting out on their front porches as they often did. But this was Thanksgiving and great activity was going on inside each of the Good Street homes.
The town park was only a block away and seemed a fitting destination. As a young child, it was a place of frolic on the slides and teeter-totters. Older, a place to flirt with girls and make out behind trees after baseball games played on the diamond just above it. As he approached now it was mostly empty, no baseball being played, no young children either.
A young woman with her back towards him swung slowly alone on one of the old swings. The closer he got, the more familiar she looked. Funny, when Jordan was younger he could actually recognize another local kid simply by their coat, as they were all rather poor in Mountain City and usually only owned one or two pieces of outerwear each.
It was Heather George, his “cousin.” That’s another inside joke in the region. His godparents had always been referred to as Uncle Rick and Aunt Eleanor although they were not blood relations. Odder still were the Steins, not even being his godparents but they too, were Uncle Jack and Aunt Mil. Initially Jordan thought it was an oddity of his family alone. But other kids his age were all doing the same thing, until it became difficult to know who really was related to whom in this quirky little town.
His gait altered to a discreet slither as he snuck up behind his cousin-who-was-not-his-cousin.
“Horny Heather.”
“Jordy Jerk-off.”
He first laid the nickname on her when he was about eleven and she ten. The alliteration just sort of popped out one day. It was ironic in that he, as well as she, barely understood the meaning of the word “horny” at the time. Yet he knew from that very moment that it upset and embarrassed her, so naturally he kept it up incessantly. To this very day, no one else ever called her that. So too, his being called, “Jordy Jerk-off.”
Like he and his mother, she too was an only-child; rather strange in Mountain City, where birth control seemed as foreign as time travel. It didn’t appear to be a Catholic thing, either, as families of all faiths regularly had broods of at least three or four, usually more.
Despite how he felt about his Uncle Rick, Jordan loved Heather as a brother loves a sister. There was never, absolutely never a romantic inclination between them growing up. They teased, they fought, they defended one another, and they hurt each other’s feelings and spent days not talking to each other. In short, they were like every brother and sister they had ever known.
Once they were old enough to know the meanings of words like “horny” and “jerk-off,” Jordan was not blind to the fact that Heather was growing into a beauty. But those types of thoughts were, within him, regarded as verboten. For what sort of person lusted after their sister/cousin/god-something-or-other? As Wally Cleaver might say, “only a creep.”
As a child, Heather had the face of a porcelain doll topped with Shirley Temple curls. An advertiser’s dream of a beautiful baby girl. Many wondered if growing up would do her looks more harm than good, like Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” But no, she developed well and was quite popular with the boys. Some even tried approaching her through Jordan, as one would a sister through a brother. He treated it similarly, giving a steely glare to anyone who sounded disrespectful of her virtue. So too, although they were each other’s best friend of the opposite sex, he did not care to discuss sexual matters with her nor she with him, “Horny Heather” and “Jordy Jerk-off” aside.
He asked, “Did you scare the other little kids off the swings?”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m here all alone.”
Glad as they were to see each other, there was no hugging or kissing, for that would have been much too weird. That air-kissing bit was big in Philly, but here in Mountain City the only times Heather and Jordan had embraced were at his grandparents’ funerals.
“Seen anyone?” he asked.
“Naw. How’s Philly?”
Standing alongside her, he began to do something odd. As she faced him, he started moving around behind her.
“What are you doing?”
“Seeing if you can still hear me if you can’t see me.”
Heather was a teacher of the deaf, and therefore an excellent lip reader. Jordan knew one of them would be the first to start the inevitable teasing, as he was a urologist. Only proctologists and gynecologists get more abuse in the medical world.
It was her turn. “Grabbed any big ones lately?”
“They all look small to me.”
Joking and cutting up was about as far as things went between them sexually. That was still safe ground, as long as it didn’t lead to big confessions or anything like that.
Once, OK, once they were at a basement rec-room New Year’s Eve party years ago while home from college. Jordan was stag and Heather was with some guy who had no personality whatsoever. He was an outsider she brought home with her to Mountain City and Jordan had no idea what the deal was with them, serious or not, the sleeping arrangement, whatever. But shortly after midnight Heather was much the worse for wear and Jordan was worried.
“Who’s driving?” he asked.
“Who said I was going anywhere?”
She was totaled. Jordan looked around for her date. He saw him off in the crowd, still wandering about with not much to say and no one to say it to. He felt a bit sorry for the guy, as most everyone there had known each other since diapers. But unlike most shy guys in this situation, he wasn’t hanging all over his date for social support. Jordan couldn’t figure the dude out.
“What’s-his-name looks better than you do. Make sure he drives.”
“You think he looks better than me? What are you, gay?” She laughed drunkenly at her own joke. Then she leaned in to him as close as two people can get. “I want you to take me home.”
This was not phrased as some random drunk would say it to a random designated driver. There was sexual subtext here.
“Take me home, Jordy. I wanna be with you.”
Her lips were a millimeter from his and the extreme proximity caused her face to become indistinct to him -- close enough to reveal every pore, yet too near for the individuality of perspective. For the first time that he could remember, her eyes had that sexy, sleepy, sultry look of her mother’s. The moment seemed to last forever until he realized he was about to kiss his best female friend in the world, which made him pull back in horror. No one probably noticed the discomfort he felt but him. Not even the unkissed Heather. He jerked his head back slightly and gave a discreet chuckle so as not to make the young lady feel embarrassed at her forwardness. But he knew. He knew. She wanted him. If only for that one moment on that one night, she had wanted him.
He managed to grab hold of her errant escort and instructed him to carefully drive her home. The entire time, she kept gazing at him and not at her boyfriend with that same lustful, come-hither smile. She wanted him, not as a friend, a big brother, or a cousin that night, but as a lover. God, for whatever reason, that moment had become etched in his mind as brilliantly as any real sexual conquest of his life.
He never mentioned it. Never. Not the next day, although he did come over to see that she was all right. Not ever. But that was ten or twelve years ago at least, and what did it matter today? Especially since Jordan had no handle on what exactly it had meant to him.
“How long you in for?” she asked.
“The weekend. Unless I get off early for good behavior.”
They always had a good rhythm together. How many awful, awful dates had he been on with women, many of them ultra-beautiful, who had no sense of humor whatsoever? Heather was just as attractive as any of them. Really, she was. Maybe her fashion style was not low-cut this and backless that. But put her and all the others in a lineup wearing jeans and sweaters and she would get quite a few votes, and not just for Miss Congeniality. Except for that one night, she did not have the wanton sexiness of her mother, but there was a fresh-scrubbed wholesomeness in its place. An acceptable trade-off.
“What about you? Spending the weekend?”
“Yep. No school tomorrow. Maybe I’ll hit the mall.”
“Not the one up here, I hope. I hear they closed K-Mart because the clothes were too haute couture`,” he joked. Heather worked in Reading, where there were certainly much better places to shop.
“What are you going to do for four days? Any of your crew still around?”
“Probably. Maybe if I’m lucky they won’t find me.” By this time Jordan had slid onto the swing next to her.
“So Jordy, making the big bucks now?”
“Yeah, finally. Unfortunately, the student loans will be paid off around retirement time.” He paused for no other reason than to think of what to say next so that he did not say what he wanted to say next. And then it came out anyway. “So, do you want to go out and do something some night?”
There it was. Now, he knew he didn’t mean it the way it came out, but would she? All these years as friends they had done millions of things together, but it had always sounded like, “There’s a party at Danny’s Friday night. Me, Kev and Bear are going. We heard you and Cheryl and some of your friends were going, too. Are ya?” It never quite sounded like he had just put it. He had accidentally made it sound like a date.
Oh jeez, he thought. She was smiling. They were both single. Now he didn’t know what to think. Heather was a pal to him, nothing more. On the other hand, she had many of the attributes that could make for a tolerable evening back home. She had a brain, she wasn’t an alcoholic (though after that New Year’s Eve episode, he’d have to recheck his intel on that) and she was fun and funny. Could be a good time, if there were no expectations of it being something more. There was so damn little to do back home. The mall cinema had only three screens and he wasn’t really in the mood for a movie anyway. Going out to dinner was a date thing. Besides, it was Thanksgiving and there would be leftover turkey and kielbasa in both their homes for days. That left bars, nightclubs. On Thanksgiving. “Any clubs open tonight?” he accidentally asked out loud.
“I don’t know. I hardly go out around here anymore.”
“Doing something sometime” had suddenly become “tonight,” for whatever reason. If it was to be barhopping, it occurred to him that if they stayed in the park catching up for too long, they’d have little to talk about later.
“Pick you up around eight?”
“Can you find the place?”
“Fuck you.” Damn, he thought, suddenly even the ol’ smilin’ “F. U.” made an uncomfortable tickle in his throat. Jordan still cursed far too much. He’d been working on curbing it since med school. Heather was neither a slatternly trash mouth nor some born-again priss. Just perfectly in the middle, profanity-wise, for a woman as far as he was concerned.
“See you later,” she said as Jordan turned to leave.
He’d only been out of his house perhaps fifteen minutes and here he was heading back down the hill towards home. He figured that if he went in any other direction Heather would have wondered why he was leaving at all. But he understood his own reasoning.
So where were they going to go? What would he wear? What was she going to wear? Ooo, that was a good one. That would certainly tell him what she was thinking. On a first date, Jordan could often tell if he was getting lucky just by what the lady was wearing. Any overt slut-wear and he knew that he was golden from the word “Hello.” But geez, this wasn’t a damn date. This was Heather. This was home. This was an alternative to staying in with his mom watching sitcoms or calling up guys he’d gone to high school with, hoping they were still single or between bad marriages.
Calling the guys was becoming a game of diminishing returns. Marriage was killing off most of them. Yes, he could still go over and hang with the JC Penny’s photo families they had become. But the differences between them and him were getting too stark, too fast. There was an entire menu of annoyances to choose from. The sermons on the joys of matrimony. The guy pulling him aside, telling him what hell it really was. The wife pulling him aside and saying the same thing, but with a leer in her eye that meant she was “open for business” if a better offer came along, hint, hint. The fix-up offers. The “why aren’t you married yet?” bullshit. On and on.
At thirty-two, Jordan’s was an odd existence sometimes. He had really just reached the point of simply being a doctor, whereas most of his contemporaries were already well defined by their occupations. Jordan had just completed almost a decade and a half of college and residency and thus still possessed somewhat of a college student’s social mentality. Most other doctors his age were also single. Most other people were not. Often, the world seemed jealous of his title, even in Philly, even though he had just begun earning some of the good green.
As he rounded the corner to the most infamous row of houses in his personal history, there he was: Uncle Rick. Oy. His best friend in Philly, Paul Zeiss, would be pleased Jordan was even thinking in Yiddish now, Paul’s Jewish influence invading his being.
“Well, the prodigal returns.”
He was glad Heather had not returned with him. It would have been uncomfortable. For now that he was an adult, Jordan had less compunction to take what Rick might dish out. Over the last few years, he had no problem returning Rick’s sarcasm and was prepared to really tell the sonofabitch off if he crossed the line.
“C’mere a second.”
More posturing in the war of the minds. Jordan had to come sit on Rick’s porch, Rick’s home turf, albeit ten feet away from Jordan’s. Oh hell, Rick George had probably never read “The Art of War,” “The Prince,” or any scholarly work of confrontational philosophy. Playboy magazine, maybe.
They sat on the old glider, a strange piece of patio furniture that was part porch swing, part outdoor sofa and part rocking chair. Vinyl covered, it held about three people and glided back and forth on a metal runner. The Georges, the Matinos and the Steins each had one.
Rick leaned in conspiratorially. “Viagra’s selling very well.”
“Pfizer thanks you.” Aha! Aha! He got one in first. Damn, times had changed. Rick was unphased.
“I hear they’re working on some newer things. Patches and stuff. What do you know about that?”
Rick George was not a studious pharmacist engaging in scholarly shoptalk with a doctor. Rick George was a sex fiend. This was another thing that always made Jordan uncomfortable. For years he had heard Rick brag about “wild nights” with his gorgeous Eleanor. His talk always seemed to drift towards accoutrements such as vibrators, lubricants, Fredrick’s of Hollywood and all sorts of things that Mountain City gentlemen did not discuss in public. Rick seemed to want the world to know how virile he was, as if he was the only man in the world having regular sex with his own wife. It would be boorish in any context, but particularly so if you lived next door to him and were his godchild. Rick could insinuate sex into any conversation.
“Yeah, our practice participates in studies from time to time. There’s a lot going on in that area right now.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that.” Rick sounded like he was getting insider stock tips. “Things have come a long way since pumps and Papaverine, haven’t they? You ever try that Papaverine?”
“No, Uncle Rick.” OK, that was a lie. When you’re in the field, you have access to all this stuff, and unlike doctors or pharmacists who dabble in narcotics or other things of definite illegality, a urologist playing around with erection meds and devices was…doing research. It was hilarious fun at times, too. He and his colleagues were known to try penile injections (Papaverine) once in awhile. It also engenders greater empathy for the poor fellow who not only has sexual difficulties, but also has to stick a needle in his member or work some pump thing around it to make it function properly. Thank God for Viagra, really.
“I primarily work with prostate cancer patients, although I get some sexual dysfunction work on occasion.”
“Well, if you ever get some samples of any new stuff…” Rick’s leer said the rest.
“You having some problems in that area, Uncle Rick?” Damn! He was killing him today, absolutely murdering him. A lifetime of losing these verbal battles and now he was standing in tall and strong.
“No, no; not me. You should come up to the bedroom. I just bought one of those chair things. You know, those chairs?”
“What kind of chair do you mean?”
“You know, those swinging chairs with the holes in the bottom. You hang it on a chain, you know?”
Suddenly the picture was clear in his mind, from some long-ago porn flick or soft-core cable thing. Oh geez. Rick was back on top because yes, this was not a visual Jordan wanted to deal with. Aunt Eleanor, nude in some swinging wicker chair, hovering above a prone, naked Uncle Rick with his erection perpendicular to his body; pushing up through the bottom of the chair while she…spun around on him? Oh geez…
“That’s OK.”
“You haven’t seen our new bedroom, have you? I redid it in these wild, jungle prints. Now we walk around like Adam and Eve. With Heather out of the house, no need to be discreet. Know what I mean?”
The guy was a total, smirking, arrogant perv. This was not some drunk at a bar bragging about unknown, faceless women. This was the man who was supposed to become his father if his own father had failed to live up to his duties, which is exactly what had happened. And he was talking about his godmother next door, no less! Why did he do this? Jordan had heard similar garbage from Rick’s mouth over the years, not just directed at him but to anyone else who would listen. Stein. Everyone, including his own wife, Mildred, referred to Uncle Jack Stein simply as “Stein.” Poor neighbor Stein had to have heard this trash for ages and couldn’t have liked it any more than had Jordan. Stein would never talk about sex or his wife to anyone in public the way Rick George did. Stein may have been the one with dirt under his fingernails, but in some ways he had more class than white-collar Rick by a mile.
As Jordan retreated into the safe haven of his house, the one to the right of the George’s, the one without jungle-print wallpaper or a sex swing in the master bedroom, he wondered how Uncle Rick would feel about him going on a date with his precious daughter that very night. Damn! There it was again. He was not going out with Heather. She was just a pal he’d known his entire life. Two people in this burg who could spend a platonic evening together and conceivably have a very good time.
Jordan’s mother looked up from her cleaning. “You’re back soon. See anyone you know?”
Funny question. There was no one in Mountain City whom he did not know. But it was Thanksgiving and there was food on the table and football on the tube. The streets and sidewalks were so vacant that birds could be heard cawing hundreds of yards away. A ghost town on a chilly day.
“I ran into Heather.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
His mother would have said, “Oh, that’s nice” if he had told her he’d discovered a dead body under the leaves by the park swings. No, in all fairness she would have instead replied, “Ohhhh…that’s not good,” and continued to carve up turkey into neat little foil-wrapped packages.
“We’re going out tonight; see what’s happening.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea. That’s great.”
She had to have assumed it was not a date. Had to. Her entire tone had an “I’m so glad you’re playing with Johnny-the-hemophiliac,” sound to it.
Good. She was not too bad in the “when are you going to get married and give me grandchildren?” department. She was so damn proud that her son was the first in her family to complete college that Jordan pretty much got to skate on everything else. Most of his other high school classmates were already onto their second or third child, if not second or third marriage by now, but that was OK by her.
Funny how Heather hadn’t gotten married yet, either. What was her excuse? She was attractive, bright, had a decent job, and this was about the tenth time Jordan had mentally listed her attributes since he saw her.
Strangely enough, their little tête-à-tête in the park was one of the longest conversations they’d had in years. They went to different colleges and settled in different cities, but kept similar “coming home holidays.” Yet mostly they were like planets passing in separate orbits. He might see her on Thanksgiving; he might not. Ditto Christmas or any other random day he chose to drop in. If they did see each other, it frequently involved nothing more than a “hi/’bye” as one or the other departed for places unknown. This did not indicate a frost in their relationship. They were simply into their own new lives and, perhaps, took their lifelong friendship somewhat for granted.
Jordan thought that if it weren’t for the sexual overtones, this could be a very good evening ahead. She was bright, she was fun, and here he was listing her attributes again. Damn!
Barhopping was something Jordan did semi-frequently. He went to bars for the same reason most single people do: sex. Despite all the negatives postulated about singles bars, Jordan rather enjoyed them. To him it was an advanced study in American urban sociology. Like some perverse sportscaster, he got gassed watching the mating rituals and narrating them to himself or his compatriots of the evening.
“She’s beautiful and she knows it. Dressed to kill. She makes eye contact with no one, except to order a drink. In a room full of people, how can she still manage to find a place to look where there are no other eyes? It’s like a magic trick or something. Occasionally, she looks towards the door and then quickly back to staring at the posts holding up the ceiling. It gives the impression that she’s waiting for someone, someone better than anyone who’s here, but that person never comes.”
“So she’s available?”
“Go up to her and find out.”
“And get shot down? No way.”
“Because she’s waiting for someone.”
“No she’s not. She just wants you to think she’s waiting for someone. If she was really waiting for someone, she’d look longer at the door.”
“How do you know these things?”
“I’m a urologist. We study this in school.”
Granted, Jordan had other options for meeting eligible women, but most of them he abhorred. Dinner parties thrown by couples with him and only one single woman invited. He hated that. Socially acceptable voyeurism with him as the show. At singles bars there was still the feel of stalking prey, of unlimited choices and possibilities. Despite the naysayers, Jordan had actually met and dated, sometimes for quite a substantial amount of time, a number of women he’d met in bars and clubs. There is a certain conundrum to the rantings of anti-bar proponents. In order to conclusively postulate that relationships could not be found in these places, they had to have tried it themselves. Thus, they essentially were living proof that all types of people looking for all sorts of things could be found on a given night in a given bar. This was Jordan’s Singles Bar Theory of Random Possibility.
There was also the issue. The single doctor issue. He and Zeiss joked about their prestigious memberships in the DDL – Doctors, Dentists, and Lawyers. Even rude, ugly doctors were in demand. It was like being a movie producer.
In Philly, he was always meeting women who had turned marriage into some sort of goal, something one would put at the top of a “to do” list. Especially getting married to a doctor. But what Jordan particularly loathed, the thing that made him leave skid marks on a moment’s notice, was when a woman he had just met told him, “I’m really looking for a committed relationship.” If he were feeling spry enough, he would debate them on the notion.
“With just anyone?”
“No, not with just anyone.”
“So how would you know?”
“I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
“You said you’re looking for a committed relationship. That means you want exclusivity and yet you don’t even know this person yet.”
“No, but if they’re the right person, I’d want a commitment.”
“But how do you get to know if they’re the right person?”
“We’d go out.”
“And if he wasn’t the right person?”
“We’d stop seeing each other.”
“Sounds just like ‘dating around’ to me.”
“No, it’s different. It’s dating a person who’s ready to make a commitment.”
“But to who? Maybe to you; maybe not to you. You’d have to go out awhile in order to find out, right?”
“Would you sleep together?”
“I don’t sleep around. I told you, I’m looking for a committed relationship.”
“But what if you were sexually incompatible? What if he was into S&M or something?”
“I wouldn’t stand for that.”
“But you’d never know that until you got naked together, would you?”
He could drag this on for hours. Not that he enjoyed arguing, but he’d been through this cliché so many times that it stuck in his craw.
And so, Jordan Matino trolled singles bars for sex and absence of commitment. He trusted no woman: a casualty in the battle of the sexes and utterly sick of the game. Entering the DDL, he swore off love as a nun swears off marriage. Another time, perhaps.
"Secrets and lies, Rev. Secrets and lies. This strange little burg is full of them.” Both men paused for a moment of quiet contemplation. Finally, Jordan summed up his feelings in a question. “Rev, when a person chooses to lead a double life, how does one tell which is the double and which is the life?”

Rev stared into the steering wheel. “I’m supposed to know the answers to those kinds of questions, aren’t I?”

“It’s okay. It’s probably like a philosophy exam. There really is no right answer. Just answers. All of them right; all of them wrong.”

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For Better or Worse by Mark Lichterman

Through seven years as two familiar young people become an adult man and woman, a husband and wife and, eventually, responsible parents...  
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