Thirty-two degrees, according to the dashboard thermometer, so . . . maybe. In warm weather the garage door duti-fully lumbered up and over the section of bent track, but below freezing it invariably stuck and you had to get out, remote in hand, and manually yank the door past the spot where it caught. Within a few degrees of freezing, though, it was anybody’s guess, so Ray pressed the remote and opened the driver’s-side door, pre-pared to get out if he needed to. When the door shuddered past the critical point and up along the ceiling, he closed the car door again, noticing as he did so that Paula, his wife, was watching him with her O ye of little faith
Pulling inside, he made sure to leave her enough room to get out. Two-car
was how the garage had been described when they bought the house. Ray, himself a realtor and all too familiar with such dubious representations, had squinted at the phrase in the listing information, then at the garage itself. It was probably true it could hold two small sedans, but with anything larger you’d need to pull the first car in at an angle to have enough space for the second vehicle. He’d considered calling Connie, the seller’s agent, on this, but he liked her, in particular how she confessed right up front that she’d just gotten her license. She seemed genu-inely terrified of saying the wrong thing, of disclosing something that by law wasn’t supposed to be mentioned or of failing to dis-close something else that was mandatory. She’d gone into real estate, she claimed, because she liked helping people find what they wanted, and she seemed blithely innocent of the fact that most people had no idea what that was, especially the ones who were defiantly confident they did. Ray doubted she would last long and wasn’t surprised when, a year later, he ran into her and was told she’d embarked upon a degree in social work.
Anyway, Paula had loved the house and didn’t want to see the not-quite-two-car garage as a problem, though she conceded they’d probably have to find someplace else for the lawn mower and the other stuff they usually stuck in there. She argued they’d be okay if they went slow and paid attention, especially at backing out. When for the record Ray expressed grave doubts about this as a long-term solution, she asked, “What are you saying? That we’re careless people?”
Well, no, but they were human and there was no app for that. A person could be careful most of the time, maybe eighty percent, if you really worked at it. The way Ray saw it, human nature was flawed, almost by definition, pretty much a hundred percent of the time, which left a sizable margin for error. For nearly a year, though, they waged a successful battle against such cynicism, until one day Ray misjudged and sheared off his side-view mirror. A month later Paula—okay, okay, she admitted, she’d been in a hurry—backed into the metal track the garage door slid on, warping the runner and taking out a taillight. The two acci-dents, in such close proximity, represented a genuine I told you so
moment, but Ray’d given it a pass. He and Paula had been mar-ried for close to thirty years, thanks in large part to a mutual will-ingness to let an arched eyebrow do the heavy lifting of soliloquy.
Tonight, though, as the garage door rattled closed behind them, palsying violently the last few feet before finally slamming down onto the concrete floor, he knew there’d be more than her eyebrow to worry about. His wife hadn’t spoken a word during the ride home from the restaurant, and when the garage light went off, plunging them into complete darkness, she made no move to get out.
“You hurt Vincent’s feelings,” she said finally.
“He had it coming,” Ray said, referring to how they’d tussled briefly and pointlessly over the check. After all, it was Vinnie’s sixty-fifth birthday they were celebrating, plus there were two of them and just one of him, and his halfhearted grab was really just an attempt to get in a final political dig. “This is the least I can do, bud,” he said. “From now on you’re paying for my health insurance.”
“You forget we’re Democrats,” Ray responded, placing his credit card on the tray. “We think people are entitled to health care. We’re happy to contribute to that end.” A lifelong Republi-can, Vinnie had reluctantly voted for Obama but was now suffer-ing buyer’s remorse. (The guy’s not a realist . . . another Jimmy Carter . . . doesn’t know how the world works.
) It had made for
a trying evening.
“I’m not talking about the check,” Paula said. “I’m talking about his offer.”
“Which I thanked him for.”
“ ‘Thanks, anyway,’ was what you said. It sounded like ‘Mind your own business.’ ”
“That’s how I meant it.”
Truth be told, he’d been out of sorts from the start. They’d gone to La Dolce Vita, or, as Vinnie called it, Dolce Vita’s, his favorite place, pretentious and overpriced à la Vinnie. Ray and Paula had purposely arrived a few minutes early, but of course he was already there, ready to rise from his chair with a flourish and gather Paula in. “Hey, baby,” he said, as if it was still the fifties and they were all Rat Packers. “Is this stiff treating you right?”
Paula tried gently to extricate herself from his embrace, assur-ing Vinnie as she always did that Ray was treating her fine, but with everyone in the dining room watching them, Vinnie wasn’t about to surrender either the pretense or the woman.
“I only mention it because we could run away, just the two of us.” All of this sotto voce. “Someplace warm, with our own pri-vate cabana? Call me.”
Vinnie in a nutshell: Call me.
You need a table at Babbo? Call me.
You need Red Sox tickets? Call me.
You need to get your dog
trained? Call me.
You don’t have a dog? Call me.
Because Vin-nie always knew a guy. Sometimes from the old neighborhood, sometimes from prep school or maybe his university fraternity. Guys who normally didn’t do favors, but for Vinnie . . .
Only when Paula promised to call if Ray turned into a lout did Vinnie release her and turn to the patient witness of this recur-ring lunacy, and Ray extended his hand. Vinnie swatted it away, offended, as if handshakes were insulting to guys who shared deep emotional bonds without getting swishy about it. “Get outa here with that,” he said, pulling Ray into one of his hugs. “How’s every little thing? You okay?”
Ray, anxious to be seated, said he was right as rain.
“We need to hit the links,” Vinnie said, making a Johnny Car-son golf swing. “I’m not saying I’m giving you strokes, I’m just saying.”
Then he spun back toward Paula, imploring, arms extended wide like a crooner’s, to take in the entire restaurant. “What do you think? Best table in the house? That’s how things would be every night if you were with me.” He’s just lonely since Jackie died
was how Paula excused such
outrageous behavior, to which Ray always responded that, yeah, sure, Vinnie was
lonely. The mistake would be to conclude that he was just
“He’s your friend,” she reminded him now in the dark garage. “He cares about you. If he knows a good surgeon—”
” Ray corrected her. “The best.
Vinnie always knows the best
guy. You’d have to be crazy to go to anybody besides Vinnie’s guy.”
“But that’s how he is.
He’s just being Vincent. People like to feel important. What’s so wrong with that?”
Ray would have liked to tell her but couldn’t, though it did put him in mind of his uncle Jack, whom he hadn’t thought about in years.
“Is this how it’s going to be, then?” she said. “What do you mean?”
“I just don’t see why you have to act like this. What does it get you?”
By now his eyes had adjusted to the dark enough to see that hers were glistening. “Paula,” he said. “What are we talking about?”
He knew, though.
“What I’d like to get through to you is that in this particu-lar circumstance . . .” She paused, seemingly poised between all-too-understandable fear and something closer to anger. “Being you, going about things the way you usually do, isn’t always a good thing.”
“I should become somebody else?”
“Yes,” she said, taking him by surprise.
“How come Vinnie gets to be Vinnie, but I don’t get to be me?” “Vinnie’s not the one who—”
“I already told you, I’ll do whatever you—” “What I want
is for you to swallow your pride.”
“Fine,” he sighed, because it was ridiculous to be sitting there in the cold damp garage, their visible breath fogging the wind-shield. “If he wants to put me in touch with this Boston guy, fine. Now, can we go inside?”
He took her silence as permission to open his door, and he did—too far, dinging yet again the rear panel of his parked SUV.
Which felt like what? Vindication was the far-from-comforting answer, but that’s what it felt like.
Copyright © 2017 by Richard Russo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.