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“What are the chances?” murmured Phoebe, turning her back and flicking her lighter in a cupped hand until a sinew of smoke escaped the corner of her mouth and was obliterated in the wind. Unaccustomed to Phoebe’s stream of consciousness musings, Lucy looked up at me from where she sat at the end of the bench, stuck out her bottom lip, and shrugged.
“Zero that we know what you’re talking about,” I said.
Standing there in cat sunglasses, their pointed corners encrusted in rhinestones, and Grace Kelly scarf, Phoebe looked every bit the aging movie star, stoical in the face of a waning career and self-engineered tragedy, even though the Marlboro poised between two gloved fingers was, as usual, bent out of shape like an old nail. She tapped it in my direction as if to ash on my ignorance and, pointing at the plaque memorializing Mildred Stanfield’s untimely end, said, “The chances of that.”
I pulled out my phone and read from the screen: “There’s a 1 in 9 million chance of being killed by lightning.”
“Wow,” said Lucy. “She must have been cursed.”
“Maybe, but according to this those odds are WAY better than winning the Powerball. Or going down in an airpl– ”
“I meant finding someone who loves you that much,” snapped Phoebe.
Not a single sentimental molecule in her body, Lucy clapped a hand over her mouth to conceal the incredulous amusement her eyes betrayed. The inward groan I gave voice to when I said, “What? A sign on a bench? In a cesspool out by the airport? That no one ever comes to except to spray-paint CUNT on it? It’s not exactly the Taj Mahal, my dear.”
I should have known this inexplicable showing off to Lucy would trigger something volcanic in Phoebe. Sure enough, she slid her glasses down her nose, gripped her cigarette between thumb and forefinger and pointed the heater, elongated and jagged as it receded in the wind, in my face like it was the tip of a blade. “Don’t you ‘my dear’ me. We’re here aren’t we? To scatter the ashes of your old friend. Because it’s a special place. Even if it was in the middle of the Sahara Desert or on the moon!” she shrilled, the tendrils of the old willow flailing assent in the wind. “Who would do something like this for you if you suddenly dropped dead? Not me, that’s for sure!”
“We could just freshen up this paint job,” cackled Lucy, turning and patting the faded green ‘C’ she had her back to. I watched sullenly as Phoebe and Lucy high-fived this proposal, the inevitable 2 versus 1 dynamic of threesomes reconfiguring to my disadvantage, to the ostracized position I had become increasingly familiar with as Melanie waded deeper into her teens and allied herself more and more with Ally.
Phoebe had a point though: who would? And my chest tightened as memories of Ally once again tugged at my heart. Those Sunday dinners when she would give me the best cut of steak or largest slice of cake and scowl at Melanie, somehow not as deserving, when I shared the extra bounty with her. The tender, non-judgmental nursing that time I went so overboard at the American Ballet Gala I had been dragged to, I was too shattered to get out of bed and take Melanie to the soccer tournament she’d been hyping for weeks. The glorious unreciprocated massages when I came home after long-haul flights. The shoulder biting when I teased her and unselfish devotion in bed. Had I not made the Lajes landing and the plane had gone down, the remnants of my catastrophically destroyed body ending up at the bottom of the Atlantic or in the belly of a shark, I could imagine Ally cleaning out our savings to build a cenotaph, her own private Taj Mahal, somewhere spectacular like that secluded patch of beach in the Ozarks where we had fucked under moonbeams and dozed to the pleasing sound of boats moving through water. What was it Bob Calloway had said to me on my wedding night? With such authority it was almost menacing? “She’s a keeper, Paul. DON’T FUCK IT UP.”
“How do I make sure I don’t?” I asked in all sincerity as I gazed at Ally glistening and heaving under the lights of the dancefloor, all the other women out there looking pasty and heiferish in comparison.
He slung a great bear arm around my shoulder and pulled me into his unyielding, hard as concrete, body. “Women are insanely resilient to our bullshit so long as they feel loved. And that’s so easy it’s not even funny. All you have to do,” he said, counting off his points with emphatic meaty fingers “is: one, keep your fucking dick in your pants; two, make her laugh; and three, every now and then, drop a random gesture of affection. Humping her from behind every time she’s leaning over doesn’t count.”
“Not really. It still counts to show how horny you still are for her. Which is important. But a heartfelt kiss on the hand in public will translate into the real thing – with bells on – in the sack.”
This sensible enough advice must have gotten deleted by some memory gremlin the instant Bob released me from his grip and marched off to find Sarah as if stirred to action by his own guidance. Reflecting on it now, I had always been able to make Ally laugh at will, even during the somberest of times (perhaps especially during the somberest of times), her face splitting open with teeth and laughter often until, knees squeezed together and crotch in hand, she begged me to stop. But on Bob’s other points, I had failed spectacularly. Making it all the more astonishing that she went so above and beyond, pandering to me year in year out.
A jerky Instagram loop video of Jeff Rosenberg spontaneously kissing Ally’s hand while strolling down the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, our Promenade, for all to see began sadistically playing in my head until I felt a hand cupping my chin. “Jesus Paul, we were just kidding,” said Phoebe.
“I wasn’t,” said Lucy dryly, still sore at me for cracking that, with her cape coat billowing in the wind around her diminutive frame, we might just as easily attach her to a string and fly her like a kite as scatter Harold’s ashes.
The fog clearing, I studied the little worry crinkles around Phoebe’s eyes and grunted, “It’s not that.” She pursed her lips and nodded sadly and, as she turned and winced into the wind clawing at her headscarf, as beautiful in her glorious damage as the grand crumbling buildings in Old Havana, I was overcome by a powerful unfamiliar impulse, perhaps also blown in on the strange and volatile wind. I took her hand and pulling off her glove, pressed her palm to my lips and kissed her there with all the tenderness an empty man could muster for a woman who, if there ever was one, deserved to be loved. And without having to be struck down by lightning to pay for it.
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
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