Photograph by Sarah Elaine
It had come to this. The newsman was the news and they—his colleagues, he might have called them if he didn’t despise them—were following him. There must have been a dozen cameras chasing him as he made his way up the stone path to the front door of the house outside Sherman, Ohio. He had a key, but he didn’t need it. Veronica pulled open the door, he stepped inside, and the door slapped shut. He smelled chicken soup. He smelled the wood of the floors and furniture. He smelled the crisp, clean scent of Veronica’s blouse and skirt. All of this was familiar and welcoming.
“It looks like they want to hang you,” Veronica said. “I promise I’ll hide all the rope.”
“They’ll use the garden hose.” He tried to smile. “They’ll use their camera straps.”
He’d met her thirty years ago, when he’d returned to his hometown to do a story on the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment to become part of the U.S Constitution. She had been the first person he’d interviewed—she never thought the ERA would pass, she said, so she wasn’t disappointed—and he’d taken her to dinner the same night. She’d never been beautiful or striking. Perhaps he would call her handsome now. She had long brown hair, gray only in certain light, luminous, dark eyes, and, on her cheeks, a constellation of freckles. She looked, he always thought, like home. His good looks, meanwhile, had slowly vanished over the last three decades. His gold-brown hair had thinned and grayed and his cheeks had slid. The lines at the edges of his lips and eyes looked like a subway map. His voice had remained the same resonant baritone, which is how he’d held on to his job. His voice as well as habit. People were used to him telling them what was happening in the world.
“Let me take your jacket, sugar.” She lifted it off his shoulders and attached it to the coat rack beside the door. “If I’d known you were bringing company, I would have made more soup.”
After thirty years, he thought the secret of his double life was safe. Who’d spilled his story?
It didn’t matter. There was nothing he could do. He couldn’t even criticize whoever broke the story. The facts were right.
For the crowd outside of Veronica’s house to be as large as it was, the story must have hit the Internet this morning. He could predict reactions to it. His current wife and his two ex-wives would express shock, surprise, and disappointment. His current wife would be especially aggrieved. He would recognize her behavior as the first move in their divorce game. The more hurt she appeared, the bigger her settlement would be. She was smart. Smart and beautiful. She’d been a suitable wife for a national news anchor. So had his two previous wives been smart and beautiful and suitable.
He wouldn’t be a national news anchor much longer. He could hear the words with which he would be dismissed: People need to trust the man who’s delivering their news. Otherwise, they’ll think it’s all fiction, all deception. He could predict the clever, self-satisfied headline proclaiming his firing: Veteran Newsman Unanchored. Without his job, he wasn’t sure how low his ego would sink, how undermined his self-esteem would be. He knew he didn’t amount to much away from his anchor’s desk. He would be like an athlete barred from the field.
It was good he was here. Veronica and his job had been the twin pillars in his life, although he’d been devoted far more to the latter than the former. He hadn’t provided Veronica with the life she’d wanted, although she never complained. He’d given her sufficient money to raise their children, but he hadn’t given her much of his presence. Some years, he saw her and their children only twice. He could right this wrong now. He could come home for good.
“I’ll pull the curtains,” Veronica said. “Your friends are playing Peeping Tom with their cameras.”
“They aren’t my friends.”
“I’m teasing. I guess you’re not ready for teasing.”
He thought about this, tried to smile. “I’ll be ready for it tomorrow.”
He always knew this could happen. He always told himself that if it did happen, he wouldn’t play it like a politician, stalling and denying and dancing around the truth until he looked like a liar and a jackass. But he expected to have more warning than he’d had today. In the parking lot of the Sherman Airport, a young woman in blue-framed glasses came up to him as he was dropping his suitcase in the trunk of his rented Avalon. After she introduced herself as a reporter from the Sherman Advocate and Post, she said, “Is it true you’ve had a family here your entire adult life? Is it true you and Veronica Berry have four children? Is it true—?”
“Three children,” he told her, “unless Veronica is including me as a child. If this is the case, you have the right number.”
This flustered the reporter long enough so he could slip into his Avalon and drive off into the cool midmorning. On the sides of the roads, trees’ splendid reds, yellows, and oranges were giving way to dull, brittle brown. He loved autumn, but today was as much winter as fall. When he arrived at Veronica’s house, reporters were camped in her driveway and yard like demonstrators at a sit-in.
“We won’t have any privacy on the first floor,” Veronica said. “Why don’t you go upstairs. I’ll bring your soup up to the office.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“No, you go on ahead.”
After walking up the wooden stairs, their creaking a good song he hadn’t heard in months, he settled into what Veronica always called his office, although he never did much work here. What time he had he liked to spend with Veronica and the children. They were grown now. The youngest, Maura, was at Ohio Eastern University. Hers was the only one of his children’s high-school graduations he’d attended. He’d done an “Across America” segment on the dying Rust Belt, and he’d interviewed Maura and several of her classmates about their post-graduation plans. He supposed clips from this report would now air nonstop on the cable networks.
He and Maura talked four or five times a year. Unlike her brothers, she called him “Dad.” When they were teenagers, his sons had bristled at what they saw as his casual relationship with their mother—and with them. In his presence, Veronica always put them straight. As adults, they chose to be distant, inaccessible. He hadn’t spoken to them in years.
He never romanticized what he had here. He was never unhappy to leave, save the time John, their middle child, was in the hospital with pneumonia and, having grown pessimistic from all the diseases and wars and outright bad luck he’d reported on, he feared the boy would die. But Veronica, who was a nurse, said, “He’s tough. We’re all tough. Don’t worry.” So he had returned to New York, and John had recovered.
He and his first wife had tried to have children, but she’d miscarried twice. She was an up-and-coming actress when he was an up-and-coming newsman. He and Margaret were good together sexually. The attraction lasted a long time, perhaps because their busy lives made them half strangers to each other. But after her second miscarriage, she said she couldn’t live with a man whose sole way of comforting her was to suggest she see a shrink. He deserved this zinger and everything else she hurled at him. He was already having an affair with the woman who would become his second wife. Elizabeth had two children from a previous marriage. He treated his stepchildren cordially. He didn’t remember their birthdays, but his personal assistant did. Stephanie, his current wife, had wanted children. But she had been forty years old when they’d married, and he had stalled long enough so her age became an insurmountable obstacle.
Veronica stepped into the room. “Here,” she said, putting a bowl of chicken noodle soup in front of him. “I left the cornbread in the kitchen. I’ll get it.”
“No,” he said. “Why don’t you stay and talk.”
There was a couch behind his desk chair, and she settled onto it. “I can’t see you while I’m eating,” he said.
“I won’t go anywhere,” she said.
It was probably fair to say he didn’t love Veronica. Or maybe it was more correct to say he hadn’t given himself a chance to love her. She wasn’t a woman who could do what his three wives had done: be dazzling on his arm at parties, speak to his colleagues with intelligence about what was happening in the White House and the world. He had started a relationship with Veronica because she could give him what his three wives couldn’t, not a family—Veronica had not, in all three instances, consulted him before becoming pregnant—but familiarity, steadiness. She had the air of his birthplace in her lungs. She spoke the language he’d heard even in the womb. If there was something Oedipal about this, he didn’t care.
“This is wonderful soup.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“I’m always speaking the truth.”
Most men didn’t have the luxury of living two lives. Their wallets couldn’t afford it. His wallet was large enough to send all of his children to private high schools and the boys to private colleges. (Maura wanted to attend Ohio Eastern because of its excellent journalism program, which he had endowed.) Or if men had the money to live two lives, their consciences couldn’t afford it. Or they saw their desires as contradictory, as irreconcilable. He had never wanted to leave home; he had always wanted to live in New York City. He had wanted a quiet life; he had wanted fame and a blazing career. Instead of choosing between them, he embraced both, albeit one in secret. The horde outside the house could never capture the complexity of his lifestyle in their two-minute reports, their blogs, their screeds, their tweets. In their version of his story, he would be only another egoist who had failed to live by the rules. Their rules.
“I guess they expect you to say something,” Veronica said, nodding out the window at the news trucks piled in the driveway.
“I’m sure they do.”
“What will you say?”
“They want me to apologize. Say I’ve been living a lie. They want to see contrition. Tears.”
“Tears would be a good visual.”
“Do you think you should apologize?”
“No,” he said. He turned around in his chair to look at her. “Do you?”
“They’ll expect an apology to all the women in your life.”
“Should I apologize to you?”
“You never lied to me.”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t.” But he’d lied to his wives; he’d lied to his colleagues and friends. Veronica, however—Veronica had known who he was from the start. And she’d opened her door to him every time.
“I’ll go out and talk to them with you,” Veronica said. She sat upright on the couch, and she looked lovely and strong. “You can say you’ve made a decision to live one life instead of two and you and I have talked and I accept that I’ll never see you again.”
He paused briefly to consider her words. “My wife wouldn’t have me back even if I said all that.”
“No, I didn’t figure her for that kind of woman.”
“Would you really be all right not seeing me again?” he asked her.
She didn’t reply immediately. “I don’t see much of you now. It wouldn’t be a big change.” She paused. “I have my own life”
“I know,” he said, although if he had to describe what she did on an average day, he would be hard pressed. He didn’t know if she was still working part-time. He knew exactly one of her friends, Darla, a neighbor about Veronica’s age with a long neck and curly, orange-brown hair. He’d found her attractive initially, less so when she recognized him from TV but didn’t seem impressed. Perhaps it was Darla who had turned him in.
He stood in order to sit next to Veronica on the couch. He felt an ache in his back; the plane flight, the hard desk chair—it took so little to punish his body nowadays. He thought to put his arm around her but refrained because she hadn’t changed poses. She looked like she was sitting in a horse-drawn carriage.
“So what exactly are you planning to do now?” she asked him. There was suspicion in her voice, although he couldn’t account for it.
He didn’t know what his plan was. No, this wasn’t true. Although he hadn’t thought about it in detail, he figured he would gradually move his life here, back home. He and Veronica could spend time together. She could fill him in on what he’d missed. He could reconcile with his sons. He could spend time with Maura, treat her to dinners, celebrate with her everything he’d failed to celebrate with her.
He wouldn’t be able to secure work immediately, but memories are short, forgiveness abundant. If he made things right with Veronica, people would forgive him all the sooner. A cable network might hire him for special projects. He could write a blog. As a fixture on TV, the nightly news was dying anyway.
Over time, his heart would open fully to Veronica. He could feel it expanding already. Husband and wife, father and mother—it wasn’t too late to fulfill these traditional roles traditionally.
“Were you thinking you’d move back here?” she asked.
“No,” he said uncertainly, responding to the coolness in her voice. He tried again: “No,” and he laughed a little as if to indicate that living with her had never occurred to him.
But she saw through him. “It would be asking me to make a big adjustment. What I like about my life is the independence it offers me.” There was a silence. “You have to understand.”
“Of course,” he said, trying to recover his anchor’s voice. He only partially succeeded.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for what you’ve provided us.”
He wondered if she had viewed him all along as an economic engine, someone faithful in moving money every month from his bank account to hers. If this is the way she saw their relationship now, she couldn’t have always viewed it this way. There had been passion, wonderful sex, long weekend mornings lounging in bed. But he visited so infrequently, and for such short periods, how couldn’t she build up resistance, indifference?
He reached to put his arm around her, to change the temperature between them, but she stood, walked to the desk, and collected his soup bowl.
“Would you like more?”
“There’s plenty of it. The cornbread too.”
“No, thank you. I appreciate it.”
He half expected her to say she’d been teasing him about his not moving in. Of course she wanted him to move in with her. He was a famous, accomplished man, and he’d supported her and their children for three decades. He’d visited as often as he could. She understood that, didn’t she? And, to top it off, she loved him. Who would agree to such an arrangement spanning half of her time on earth if she didn’t, deep down, love him? He supposed he’d always counted on this.
He stood and stepped in front of the door. He didn’t want to give her an easy escape. “Is it Darla?” he asked.
He was hoping to see her flinch or blush. He would have settled for her getting angry at him, snapping at him. Her emotion would have been a sign she felt something for him.
“Darla’s my best friend,” she said, her voice slow and even. “There’s rarely a day goes by that I don’t at least talk to her on the phone. You know how important she is to me.”
“I know,” he said. “But is she your—” He caught himself. He realized he had no right to pry into her life. She’d fulfilled whatever long-ago bargain they’d struck. Slowly, he stepped away from the door.
There was an extended silence. “So that’s it?” he said. He hadn’t wanted to make it a question or a plea, but he couldn’t keep supplication from his voice.
Another silence followed. “How long do you think they’ll stick around?” she said, nodding out the window toward the TV trucks.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not a movie star or a senator, so maybe they’ll go home tonight.”
“Well, you can stay here as long as they’re here.”
“What if they stay forever?” he asked her.
With his bowl in her hands, she headed toward the door. He thought she was going to leave without answering. But she turned to him and said, “Nothing’s forever, sugar.” Although the smile she gave him was doubtless intended to comfort, it might as well have been a knife to his heart.
About the author:
Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose. Brazaitis’ writing has been featured on the Diane Rehm Show as well as on public radio in Cleveland, Iowa City, New York City, and Pittsburgh.