As soon as Aldo came home, he checked the hygrometer.
“It’s humid downstairs,” he said.
“I know. It beeped,” Marti said.
“It’ll mold. You don’t want that.”
Marti didn’t want any of it. Sometimes she thought Aldo had married her for her inheritance of framed jerseys, pennants, signed baseballs that she wasn’t allowed to touch. It had been her father’s. It was hers. It was Al’s.
She thought it all should be in a museum. There was Honus Wagner’s (she pronounced it Vagner) mitt and Christy Mathewson’s rosin bag, the home base Jackie Robinson stole and a replica of the actual house Ruth had built. There were Roberto Clemente’s cleats and pieces of Ebbets Field. There was the microphone Lou Gehrig used to announce his retirement.
Marti didn’t know who these people were. Most of them were dead.
“It can’t mold,” she said. “It’s behind glass.”
“Did you check for vapor?”
“I had a million things to do,” she said, trying to remember exactly what. Most days she had to make a list to convince herself she had been productive. Cleaned disposal, she wrote. Changed bulb.
Her forties had been tidy, tamely exciting. Trips to Cabo, to Palm Springs, the poor man’s Cancun. She wasn’t like her friends who lived off campus near Cal, dissipated, obsessed with PBS, Birkenstocks. She found it unbearable going to their cluttered houses, vibrant with children. She envied their problems: concurrences of disaster, divorces and affairs, bouts of chicken pox.
She was changing her allegiance from Gov. Clinton to Jerry Brown when Aldo had started to talk retirement. At first it was something he ventured over dinner with his fork in the air, a distant thing, a marathon in Antarctica. It scared her when he brought it up. She wasn’t sure what he was like during the day.
It was Wednesday. Marti poured Aldo a drink, his first of four. He puckered.
“You’ve been over-bittering my Gibsons,” he said.
“It’s arsenic,” she said.
She was as thin as she was at 27, her hair a shade grayer than Emmylou Harris’. Aldo had no body image issues. He was soft and his hair had thinned finely. She had found a mole on his neck inspecting him for melanoma in the shower.
Tuesdays were taco nights. On Wild Card Wednesdays they hardly ate. Marti turned on the TV as Aldo trained his telescope on the neighbors. It was a Desi and Lucy re-run. She wondered in which of the twin beds they had made Ricky. She waited.
It was everything she wanted, on paper: a big house on stilts in the Hiller Highlands with a pioneer’s view and a yard populated with Rain Bird sprinklers which, like the eucalyptus, were not indigenous to the area. Aldo had worked so hard for it, adding on in ’88 with his bonus. (“That’s the great thing about money,” he loved to say. “A lot of it goes a long way.”) They weren’t as high up as the senior partners, but they could see the Transamerica and San Quentin through the telescope, and the two ballparks, the Coliseum and the ‘Stick, on the few nights out of every month when the view was unobstructed bliss. Six out of seven it was fog encroaching and darkness folding in on itself.
Like the view, Aldo isolated his libido to one day a week. It was a big bed, a California King, wide enough for them to never touch.
“Come here,” Aldo motioned, doubled over the tripod.
“I don’t want to watch anyone fucking,” Marti said.
He was spying on the Stearns, who lived a few thousand yards down on the Berkeley side. The husband was ironing; something was smoking. Marti thought she should go over one afternoon, introduce herself.
“What am I looking at?” Marti asked.
“She’s breastfeeding,” Aldo said. “You can’t see it?”
In their late twenties he might have had a child with her, had she only said the word. They had words for things in those days, and friends, and a code for exiting droll parties. Then his language for children changed. “It’s crying,” he’d say, holding a colleague’s newborn. “Take it away.”
“What don’t you see?” Aldo asked.
Marti refocused the lens. She wondered what the Stearns said to one another. What they could possibly say.
“Infertility?” she said.
“A liquor cabinet,” Aldo said. “It’s a dry household.”
The world wasn’t flat, but Aldo talked like it was. People who didn’t drink couldn’t have the same problems, or any problems worth talking about. His life was a big band and the cocktail shaker was the rhythm section. Marti’s eye was glued. The Stearns had an open floor plan, very modern. Mrs. Stearns read a tabloid as she pumped. They looked to Marti like churchgoers, godfearers. As the child motored around, Mr. Stearns sidled up to her and fed on her other breast, snarling as he bit. It was a high-end scope. Marti could see, vividly, her stretch marks, milk in his beard.
People fascinated Marti. As organisms. Not as people.
When Marti tried new things, Aldo reversed them. She tried volunteering. She grew out her bangs. For a week she was a crossing guard. He made fun of her spiritual quests and chakras. He laughed at her search for herself.
In ‘86 she got a male Labrador, a rescue she renamed Avery. Aldo decided he would make a good guide dog. There were a series of tests Avery had to pass. Marti issued him commands and protocols until she was no longer conversant with humans. At his graduation he was given to a blind kid from Phoenix who tripped over the leash.
It was an age of euphemism, 1991, of naming things what they were not. Wife was Partner. Turbulence was Unstable Air. Aldo still went out Thursday nights, in paisley and smelling of Old Spice, chest hair showing, looking rich. When he was out drinking he felt 25. The next morning he was 45 again. Oats needed sowing.
“Wish me luck,” he said. “This could be the night.”
“It won’t work. They won’t talk to you,” Marti said. “You’re married.”
Then again, there were worse things than cheating. She knew she wouldn’t divorce him; it was too much paperwork. As he let out the e-brake and backed down the driveway, Marti didn’t give a start or feel inexplicable pains or a cosmic vacancy. She felt annulled. For revenge, she pictured him alone at the bar shooing away imaginary flies. It was on one of these weeknights decades ago that she met Aldo. She was twenty, dolled-up, war paint. Around her neck was a locket without anyone in it, just a picture of a house, her dream house, gables, closer to her clavicle than her heart. She had been so confident then, politically riveted, socially liberated. Palpably terrified.
The penalty for elopement is no photos and an illicit feeling, like the wedding never happened. Those first months together in Fernandina, Marti loved sex on bean-bag chairs, on waterbeds and on the taut mesh between the hulls of Aldo’s catamaran. She was a sophomore at Jacksonville State, crushing on her professors, a weakness for tweed. In the library she had to stamp her legs awake, as her tired eyes traveled left to right for hours. She was the groupie cajoling security to let her backstage, eating donuts in parking lots, learning to drive stick. Her tan was tantalizing, her chic venomous. The ends of her sentences trailed. She never needed to finish anything.
She fell in love with Aldo because women were his natural companions and he had danced with the ugly girls at Prom. She didn’t know what she was getting into. His phone calls were complex things with many parts, hard to put together. He was nervous for a Floridian, especially for one who surfed. Marti suggested pot. When he smelled it on her, inevitably on her clothes or in a pocket of air in the backyard, she blamed a skunk.
Her father and Aldo had more in common. They talked baseball. They debated fluctuations in attendance and announcers and the Kansas City franchise moving west. The old man used to wake Marti up at night, turning loud double plays in his sleep. He went to trade shows, expos, queued up at folding tables with greying shortstops signing foam fingers. It was a curious adolescence and there was something aristocratic about their impoverishment. She suffered hand-me-downs, second-hands — the indignity of a Datsun for her first car — as what would have been her allowance went toward his foul-pole segments, his bleacher seats and chalk-encrusted ephemera and commemorative plates. He acquired numbers from the old scoreboard at Comiskey Park. He framed pictures of the Cubs training on Catalina Island.
Then he got cancer, which he did not bid for.
Aldo came by the house more often once the chemo started, Sunday breakfasts to keep her father’s spirits up. He was infirm. His blood was virtually dust. If Marti had known it was in his prostate, she’d have had him walk her down the aisle. She’d have let him pay for the whole wedding, instead of sneaking off to Georgia, signing the papers in Alpharetta, drafting the city clerk as a witness.
“Catch the one-hitter last night?” her father asked Aldo one Sunday.
“I was in the car. Listened to it, though. Rollie threw a gem.”
“Who?” Marti said. “Is he with the Mets?” She was tired of conversation just happening around her.
“Rollie Fingers. You know,” Al said. “With the mustache.”
She was quiet.
“You know who that is,” her father said. “Don’t play dumb.”
He held the sports page over her breakfast. He was a repository of useless trivia. He could name most of Mantle’s mistresses, all of Artie Shaw’s wives. She twirled the house around her neck as she read the box-scores, the photos.
“Mr. Fingers needs a facial hair stylist,” she said.
The men chuckled. It won her points.
When Marti and Aldo were deciding where to settle, she drew lines through the cities he proposed: thick red marks through Omaha and Salt Lake City, even the places she didn’t necessarily object to. Oakland was the last town standing. All Marti knew about California was Hollywood, fires, earthquakes. She wanted to be in pictures. She worried they would fall into the sea.
Al found work in a financial services firm in San Francisco, off Sansome. There was no playbook on how to move across the country. They loaded up a Bekins and bought a tract home across the bay in Montclair, then a rental property on Piedmont Ave., with the two good schools (Egbert Beach and Oakland Tech) and a Tiki bar nearby. It scared her that they were turning into that couple, living carefully, heavily insured, with an island in the kitchen and skylights and clear retirement goals. Al had become what she expected him to, a middle manager, terminally mature, 30 at age 26, and 50 by his 41st birthday. Instead of mountain biking — the terrain was great for it — he patronized the symphony. Instead of hiking he did the crossword.
As he got wealthier he lost the casual thoughtfulness Marti had come to expect: the impromptu flights to Vegas, the one rose on Valentine’s for every year of marriage. When her father died in ‘77, more of Al’s life moved around baseball. He had the memorabilia flown into SFO and met it at the airport. Christie’s appraised it at $1.1 million. In ‘79 he moved her into one of the houses she dog-eared in Architectural Digest.
She liked that it had a tree house, twenty feet up the spruce with a ladder bolted to the tree. In the happy pictures of them she hammered into the walls, there seemed room for a third person and a fourth, as if children had been cut out. Al built a swimming pool that he never filled, and put up a shake roof because it was vogue. He threw out the hydrangeas before they went bad. A commentator said take more baths, longer ones — Marti did and Al bitched about the utility bill. He was suddenly afraid of flamboyant ties, paisley, Volkswagens, anything fun, which was so unlike his comportment around their old friends, the social workers and deejays in East Oakland who loved him for how defensive he was about his accent and for his fascination with their marijuana palates. They could name the region the bud was grown in, the vintage. They laughed when Al stopped toking and talked over their heads and voted Reagan. He started using their code one or two drinks in, just as Marti was starting to have fun. He was acting 60, 62. He wasn’t coming back.
MTV was kind to her when Dallas ended and she needed a new guilty pleasure. That solved her primetime problem. Weekdays were storms she waited out playing bridge over the phone with radios on in every room on different stations, bebop in the kitchen, R&B in the loo. She needed noise. Only the clocks were synchronized.
The A’s were Al’s outlet. He had been in favor of their move from Kansas City, and when the Royals released Bo Jackson Al went around the house breaking No. 2 pencils over his head and knees. Soon he had season tickets and was driving to Spring Training in Arizona to meet the prospects. Marti rarely joined him: road trips made her carsick; she didn’t understand the desert or places like it. She was a sea-level creature. Why anyone would just golf their life away.
She would have been happy had the sports stayed out of her house, in a storage unit or on display at the Ferry Building. Her name would have meant something — Donated Through the Beneficence of Marti Breems. She had no say. In ’82, with his promotion, Al moved her things out of the basement and started renovating: glass enclosures and ventilation for the collection. He installed two deadbolts and, in the hallway three steps from her father’s urn, a gauge with a magnetic remote, the hygrometer, so he could follow the temperature. He checked it as often as he did the knobs on the stove just in case Marti had left them on.
It was Friday and the Stearns’ windows were dark. After Al’s third Gibson Marti found him downstairs, talking to himself, dusting.
“We need to talk,” he told her. “Upstairs.”
He came up holding a rag with a blue smudge, and a Polaroid of a wall joint with vague dots.
“I told you,” Al said, cupping the fabric. “Mold.”
She almost giggled. His face was so severe for this — this small revelation.
“On the Mathewson.”
“You had me scared for a minute,” she said.
“It means there’s too much moisture.”
“As long as it’s not in the walls.”
Their voices were calm. Everything around them was orderly, clean.
“You suck at this,” he said evenly. “Go see for yourself.”
The stairs down were steeper than those up to the second and third floors. It was his domain. She hadn’t seen it in years. The lights were soft. It was cool inside, like sunrise. Looking around infuriated her. These things, the batting gloves and the felt-pen autographs, they should be like people: allowed to deteriorate, lose value.
She had married her father.
So there was mold. She was no less important. She was just as well kept up. No plastic surgery yet. Mint condition.
Marti stormed up. In one hand she held a cap with an embroidered R and sweat stains. She didn’t know whose it was. In the other she held garden shears. Al laughed, segregating her humor. Marti was all hyperbole. Always kidding around.
She put the bill between the steel. It was old cardboard. Flimsy. It was old hat.
Al’s face changed. “That’s priceless,” he said.
“I swear I will.”
He never said he didn’t want children with her. But he didn’t poke holes in the condoms. He never sabotaged her birth control. He didn’t try.
“God, that’s worth so much money.”
He couldn’t not invoke God. She would show him. She could escalate.
“That’s a vacation to Europe,” Al said.
She didn’t know how or why it all survived. It wasn’t even art.
“Say something nice,” she said.
He would have to mean it. She could tell. There was no talking her down.
“I regret not having married you sooner,” he said.
Al took a step at her. Two steps. She backed up. It was patently, cherry tree false.
Al tried not speaking to her the next morning. Marti could see him pretending to be upset, even though she had backed down on the hat, like everything else. He was a bad husband and a worse actor.
At noon she got out of her pajamas and into the sparkling wine. Migraines had sidelined her for most of his work parties. This one was different. He insisted that she go, for appearances sake. It was a costume party, a dress rehearsal for Halloween. She couldn’t decide between gray and blue, the frock or the boobs.
On 24 he tuned into the ballgame. It was the Series; the Twins were up. They merged onto 80. Marti still felt nervous on the Bay Bridge, all bridges. She sat stiffly. She never thought she would ever wear leather pants, a shirt off the shoulder. Her bra showing.
“Where’s this party?” Marti asked.
“Aqua,” he said.
She had read about it in Food and Wine. The wine list Al could never slay, not in two lifetimes.
“I’m allergic to shellfish,” Marti said.
“Tonight you’re not,” Al said.
He was lively as he checked his bomber’s jacket with the hostess. “It’s the hollandaise season,” he sang, snapping his fingers in the foyer, jonquil as a bee.
He was supposed to be James Dean. They were not early but the party seemed to be awfully thin. Al dove into conversations, drinking, clapping colleagues so firmly on the back that Marti worried about their toupees. He was on his second drink and shot back his third with a lime chaser.
She fished the keys out of his pocket. He was no good at driving drunk. He was no good. Marti went to the bar, did a lap, flirted a little. People were a welcome sight, anyone.
“What is that you’re drinking?” Al asked her. He sniffed above her glass. “Tequila?”
Marti didn’t usually drink tequila. Tequila was a pants-opener.
“Come meet Lindsay and Phil,” Al said. “Don’t worry, you’ll like her.”
It didn’t matter if she didn’t. Phil was tall, regal. Lindsay was a guitar riff, shapes in her stockings, big earrings, neon.
“She’s bad Sandy,” Phil said. “From Grease.”
“That’s who Marti’s trying to be,” Al said.
There had been declines on Phil’s desk, losses. It was like sticking with a losing coach. The interns took bets on how large the number was. In the scuttlebutt it became a mythical, legendary sum.
“Old Al knows as this is my last company party that I get to make a speech.” Phil tapped the rim of his flute. “Fifty million dollars ago…”
“Let’s not talk money,” Lindsay said.
“Could happen to anyone,” Al said.
“We’re sunk. The traders need ethics training and the lawyers need drama classes. The Chinese are better off, the Russians.” Phil motioned for a refill. “Who needs censorship when you’ve got capitalism?”
Lindsay turned to Marti. Had they met in college they would have been friends, slutting it up Friday nights, succumbing to peer pressures, karaoke. “How’s your son?” Lindsay asked. Marti felt vacant, confused. “I swear you had a son somewhere. Al, didn’t you say you had a son? College age?”
Marti grabbed his forearm, dug her nails in.
“Would you believe it?” Al said, lilting. “He got into Stanford with a 92 on his verbal and a 31 on his math.”
She didn’t know how long she had been in the elevator. She felt herself going interminably up. On the roof she looked up and sighed. The moon was out, an Ichabod Crane moon. Al had tipped the maître d’ fifty bucks for the access key.
“I hate this,” Marti said. “I hate this ‘whose costume has the bigger cock.’ ”
She had felt nervous downstairs, nauseous. At any moment everyone would swap spouses, like musical chairs.
“Cosmonaut,” she said.
“The things you say without thinking,” Al said.
“I always hated that word. It doesn’t work anymore.”
“I said it. I get to leave.” Marti spat. “How is our son?”
“You’re fucking up. Who are you tonight? Fucking crazy.”
“I’m drunk.” She sighed, helplessly. “Lost control for once. And if the stray hors d’oeuvre made it into my gullet, so what?” She felt her hips. “No harm done.”
“Breathe,” Al said.
“Does he live on or off campus?”
“Look, slow down. We can’t both be drunk.”
“We’ll take a cab home,” Marti said. “What’s his name?”
“I forgive you. Ok? I’ll forgive you in the morning.”
“You said we had a son? You dick.”
“I didn’t say we didn’t,” he said. “Everyone else has one.”
She was furious. Things had come in threes before. But never in the same weekend.
They had to walk to Mission and Fifth to find a cab. Marti lost her bearings. San Francisco was not a playground as Jacksonville had been; she hadn’t learned any more about it than she had from the first time watching Vertigo.
The same was true of Oakland. It was a snake charmer. She didn’t know it at all. She could have learned it, with a stroller. First steps. Look both ways. At intersections: Stop. Hammertime.
The driver looked at his Thomas Guide. He lived on Treasure Island. He didn’t know the East Bay. His medallion was new.
“How old is Lindsay?” Marti asked.
“I don’t know. However old she is, she looks it. They’re swingers,” he said.
“Just saying,” Al said.
“Why? Happily married people have affairs.”
“Not you,” she said.
She knew he couldn’t. Not Al. Al knew what side his butter was breaded on.
“I had plenty of chances,” he said. “Did you know the Claremont Hotel has hourly rates?”
“For you, half-hourly.”
The fare was at $14 and climbing. It was a fleet car; the rips in the seats were duct-taped. Al asked the driver to turn down the radio. Between the Broadway and College exits he was quiet. It made her uncomfortable, his thinking.
“If I was in jail,” he said, “and in order to bail me out you had to take a note out on the house, would you do it?”
“Depends. How long are you in jail for?”
“What are you in for?”
Marti didn’t know what that was. It sounded deep, narcotic.
“Think about it,” Al said. “There’s no right answer.”
It wasn’t his fault. His siblings used to lay him down in the driveway and steer the family car over him. He wasn’t supposed to turn into this kind of man. She wished he had been a bartender, some other honest trade. She would have visited him at work. She would have respected him.
She told the driver where to turn. Right on Grandview, left on Doris Place. It was a windier road at night, more treacherous. She paid and as they walked up the lawn Al held her hand, swinging her arm a little, lifting his nose.
Al stopped and raised his foot. It was a big yard, in need of a close mow. The air was dry, swirling.
“Dogshit,” he said.
It was deer shit. Marti laughed. James Dean in Florsheim. That’s entertainment.
Sunday mornings she watched Charles Kuralt, caught up on correspondence. Al slept in. She baked. The best recipes were the ones on the back of the box.
The morning light was good when he woke up and looked through the telescope. The Stearns’ car was gone and there were fire trucks in the cul-de-sacs, cops milling about.
“Is there a block party we weren’t invited to?” he yelled to Marti.
At 10 a.m. she turned on the oven. She smelled smoke. It was outside, quietly riding the winds, billowing.
“Al,” she said.
It hadn’t rained. She wasn’t surprised and she wasn’t prepared. She picked up the phone.
“911’s busy,” he said. “I tried.”
Through the bay windows she saw her first lick of flame. It was like a crack deal on the street. She stood back, pretending not to watch. She could see tiny figures huddling, darting, overcome. It was almost economical, how quickly it moved.
Al was in the yard in his seersucker shorts and sandals, with a garden hose. He turned on the Rain Birds full blast.
“I think we can make a stand,” he said.
Marti looked up. Fire ran uphill faster than down. There were a hundred homes on the other ridge, at least.
“Everything is made of wood,” she said.
His pores were open and she could see his veins, feel his urgency.
“Let’s get it in gear,” he said.
It could skip them, right over them. It could jump their house like a freeway.
“Go downstairs,” he said.
She felt terrible. He had just finished the deck, waterproofed the teak.
“What do I grab?”
“As much as you can carry,” he said.
She did as she was told. When Hurricane Betsy hit she was the calm one. She didn’t panic like her neighbors and buy up all the canned meat and microwave meals. Now, she took whatever looked expensive, jerseys and infielders’ mitts and some surgical masks the painters had left behind. Her arms were full. She heard crackling, smelled tar. It was her roof. The singles were shake.
“Where’s the Mercedes?” Aldo asked.
“You left it in the city.”
“We’ll take your car,” he decided. “Where are the keys?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s the Wagner?”
She was confused. It was hot. The fire was making its own wind.
“The Wagner,” he said. “You have it?”
She remembered when her father came home cradling an old slip of cardboard he found at a yard sale. “Say hello to Honus,” he had told her. There was a crease in it, a fold only perceptible from certain angles, in special light.
“It’s worth more than the house,” Al said.
She put her mask on. Al declined his. She thought of the Asian women she saw on BART and in line at the pharmacy at Kaiser during flu season, in full-on gas masks.
“What about my things?” she said.
“What things? These are your things.”
She didn’t think it was possible. She thought it was just a game, a sentimental game. A pastime.
“Marti, what things?”
She looked at the pool, embers like fireflies. They could have had pool parties. She could have done laps. Even if it bred mosquitoes.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We can fight later.”
She fought him, flailed. He couldn’t pick her up. He tugged. She felt the socket in her shoulder go. The slope was working against him.
“It’s next door,” he pleaded. “Why are you doing this?”
She had a surfeit of reasons. She never got a wedding. She had no vows. He never took her to Napa. Children were take it or leave it.
Al’s voice was vapor. Marti felt her soles melting. She felt herself heading back inside. Under the bathroom sink she found a sweater she had knit for Avery, a coupon book for kisses Al bought her in ‘72 and never redeemed, and tangled around it, her necklace with the smaller dream house, the one easier to clean.
She was on all fours. She didn’t know who was twirling who. She started to feel faint. She heard an engine start. The windows were shattering, the propane tanks.
Avery, barking at nothing. Gnawing on thorns.
Zachary Amendt lives in Oakland, California. His stories have appeared in Underground Voices, Saint Mary’s Magazine, Barely South Review, and anthologies issued by Dzanc Books and Phantom Drift. His East Bay story collection — from Montag Press Collective — is out in 2014.