This is a work of fiction. If you think you recognize someone, repeat after me: “This is a work of fiction.”
Most men between the ages of 35 and 45 go through a period of re-evaluation. Realizing that youth is at an end, that many of their golden dreams cannot be achieved, many men transiently drift into despair at this time.
In an attempt to escape from these feelings of despair and to regain a sense of competency and mastery, there is an increased thrust towards new activity at this time. Thus, this is the time of career changes, of extramarital affairs and divorce.
– Psychiatric profile of Daniel Ellsberg by the CIA quoted in Test of Loyalty by Peter Schrag
This book is my fiftieth birthday present to myself. I feel as though I am crossing the spine of a roof – having ascended one slope.
– Preface, Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
The Beginning of the End
“I’M THINKING SERIOUSLY about leaving him,” Karlene said. My reaction was primarily one of distaste at being involved in the discussion, and that must have been apparent, for she added, “I’d forgotten what a cold fish you are. You’re almost as bad as he is. You don’t have any sympathy for anyone, do you?”
“I have troubles of my own,” I said. “I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m not a marriage counselor, and, for that matter, I’m not a friend of yours; so how come you think I should welcome your problems?”
“You’re a friend of Judson’s aren’t you? You’re human aren’t you? I need to talk to someone who really knows Judson. All our so-called friends here are so brand new – we’ve been here only two years – that they’d be no help at all.” She gulped the remainder of her drink and set the glass down hard on the table.
“Maybe I’m a friend of his,” I said. “He sure as hell didn’t seem very friendly last night. I didn’t get the feeling that I was a long-lost brother.”
“When you called,” she said. “we were in the middle stage of one of our low-level, but corrosive, quarrels about nothing. That’s why he didn’t bring me to meet you. He may have been tense because of the quarrel. Or maybe not. There’s no use in me trying to explain him to you.”
I had grown up with Judson. He was two years younger than I, and though we had been, for one year, roommates in college, it was probably not true that we were, or had been, friends. The people one grows up with are simply not categorized as friends, especially, but fit into some compartment of their own.
I had not seen or heard of Judson for almost exactly 20 years until the night before. And that contact had an element of chance about it that I might have cause to regret.
Last night, I had been fumbling for the switch on the table lamp between the beds in my motel room, the door switch had not produced any light, and had knocked the telephone directory off the night table. “Orange County,” I read on its cover, “including the cities of Marin, Newport, Rosedale, and Centura.” I let the book fall open and at the top of the right hand page, “Southers” leaped out at me. A quick check at the bottom of the column revealed “Southers, Judson A.” in Newport, the town I was in. “How many Judson A. Southers could there be,” I thought and dialed the number. Almost immediately, a woman’s voice answered with a noncommittal, “Hello?”
I had a moment of panic because I could not think of Judson’s wife’s name. For that matter, he might not even have the same wife after all these years. I awkwardly said, “Is this the Judson Southers who is from Sharpsville?”
“Yes,” she said, “who is this?”
“Joe Watters,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I remember you. I’ll call Judson.”
Suddenly her name came to me. “Thanks, Karlene,” I said, but she had left the phone.
Judson suggested that he pick me up, and he did, a half-hour later. We drove to a nearby bar and had a drink or two and tried to talk. He had never been easy to talk to and in the old days would sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, pull a book from his pocket and start reading. The only way to recapture his attention when he did that was to hold your hand over the page he was reading. He did not pull a book on me this time, but it was clear that he did not find the conversation entrancing.
We each tried one-upping the other about our current work, mostly by an understatement maneuver from which the other person was to conclude that your job was very important but that you were far too modest to say so. I felt disgusted with both of us. He told me a long tale about fly fishing in Idaho the summer before and about his even more extensive plans for next summer’s fishing. I was fairly sure that he remembered that I considered fishing and talk about fishing to be enormously boring.
We exchanged data about our families – he and Karlene had no children he had said. He did not say why she had not come with him to meet me, nor did he explain why he had not suggested taking me to his house, or why we were talking in a bar as if we were nearly strangers. During our talk I gradually recognized, through his age-thickened camouflage, the young man I had known. That made me feel a little better. At least I was sure it was Judson.
He drove me back to the motel, and we sat in his car and talked for a few minutes. After I had partially opened the door, he started asking about others we had grown up with. We called the dismal roll – one lost in Korea, one had flown a National Guard jet into the ground, one had drunk himself to death, most had just disappeared.
“We were all so bright,” he said. “Not one of us ever amounted to a damn, did we?”
“Not that I know of,” I said.
“Ah well,” he sighed, as I got out of the car. “It’s too late now.”
Although I had told him I was in Newport on business, he had not asked if it would bring me back again. Thinking back, I had to conclude that if it had been anyone but Judson, I would have felt insulted and offended. No one who knew him even tried to apply normal judgments to his actions. He was so unconventional a person that his behavior was beyond prediction. The only prediction that you could make about him was that his reaction to his environment would likely surprise you.
The prime example of this was his army experience. His extreme carelessness about his person, clothes, and schedule had led many people to say, “Wait’ll he’s drafted. The army will cure him or kill him.” Just after our entry into World War II, he volunteered.
When I was in the army at Drew Field, Tampa, Florida, someone wrote that Judson was also there. One Sunday, I finally found his company’s location. I went into his barracks, but it was deserted. I walked down the center until I came to a bunk on which there lay a tangled, man-sized mound of clothing. I cleared a space and sat down on the bunk. A soldier came in and verified that it was Judson’s bunk but said he had gone to Tampa for the day.
I never saw him until he was out of uniform after the war. He had, he said, just loved army life. For years, he bored people with his army experiences. He had defeated the army as he did everything. He had not given them any purchase, any handle, and lever to move him. He had become the first soldier to love everything about the army.
The anecdote that to me has always best exemplified Judson’s complete insulation from retribution is this: When we were college students, one night in a crowded booth in a bar, Judson, who was sitting on the aisle, refused to get up so Dan Thompson, who was sitting on the inside, could get out to go to the men’s room. After some argument, Dan turned up his glass and poured beer all over Judson’s lap. “You’ve ruined your trousers,” said Judson, and, indeed, it turned out he had borrowed Dan’s best trousers, without Dan knowing, to wear that evening.
I waved at the waiter, got fresh drinks, and smiled at Karlene. “I’ll listen,” I said. “I can’t imagine that I can help any, but I’ll listen.” Karlene’s good looks as a young girl had not worn well. Where she used to seem trim and energetic, she now looked gaunt and hectic. Although her skin seemed stretched over her cheekbones, wrinkles were evident about her eyes and mouth. She looked brittle.
I had been quite surprised to get a call that evening from her saying she’d like to talk to me. She had picked me up after dinner, and we were now sitting in the same bar that Judson and I had sat in the evening before.
“Karlene,” I said, “how old are you?”
“Fi-fi-fi fifty,” she said. “Now damn it, I don’t want to hear a lot of crap about menopause. I just don’t want to hear it.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I couldn’t possibly know less about menopause or its effects. It is clear that ‘fifty’ has some significance to you. You don’t stutter, do you?”
“No, it doesn’t. It’s just that I have trouble believing it. When I start to say ‘fifty’ my brain says, ‘No, no, that can’t be right, I can’t be fifty.’ Anyway, it’s not my age that’s my problem. My problem is Judson. I used to think I’d eventually get to understand him, that I’d get under his protective layers. Instead, so help me, he’s growing new ones. I know less about him all the time. It would be a relief if there was ‘another woman’ or if we had violent fights. But he’s just becoming more and more remote.”
“Still,” I said, “I’ll bet a lot of your difficulty is the magic number, 50. In a book I’m reading, a CIA psychiatrist doing a profile of Ellsberg says that between 35 and 45 is often a crucial time in a man’s life, that he suddenly realizes he’s not going to make it, that he’s no longer the ‘bright young man.’ He says this is a period when a man may abandon his job, his ambitions, or even his family and strike out on another track. Personally, I think the real crisis comes at 50. That’s when you know for sure. Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface of one of his books, says that at 50 he had a distinct feeling of being on a dividing line, the peak of the roof, and that it would be mostly downhill after that. Maybe, then, we should think of two different crucial points, one at about 40, say, which we might think of as ‘The End of the Beginning’ and another at about 50, which we might call ‘The Beginning of the End.’”
“Oh, why 50,” Karlene exclaimed. “Why that particular age?”
“We think in decimals, that’s all,” I said. “If we counted by twelves, it would probably be at 48, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that there are some very serious readjustments to be made.”
“I’m not sure I understand you,” she said.
“Well, for a lot of our life we are almost unaware of ourselves, we’re absorbed in the external world. At puberty we become extremely, intensively, and maybe exclusively, for a time, aware of our bodies. Then gradually we grow reabsorbed in externals, and then at some age around 50, I believe we are confronted again with our bodies. Now we see the wrinkles, the creepy skin, the white hair, and we feel the quickly tiring muscles, the slightly stiff joints, the shortness of breath. Earlier, we joked about getting old. But now, all at once, we know it’s really going to happen. And suddenly it’s no joke.”
“Well, you are human. I’m glad to find it out. Judson seems to have no such feelings.”
“I’m sure he does.” I told her about his comment that “it’s too late, now” when we parted last night. “He feels it, all right. Maybe you’ve given up trying to pierce his insulation. Maybe you’ve given up right at the time when it could be done.”
“I’m tired of trying. I feel completely and utterly defeated.”
“But so does he,” I said. “That’s just what I’m talking about. At some age this sense of defeat comes to every person. Not only are his dreams gone, but he can’t even remember for sure what they were. And I’m sure this feeling is no respecter of person or position. I’m pretty sure of it. The Mayor sees he’ll never be the President, and the President sees his efforts will never matter. All is defeat. All is in ruins. Up to now you still had a chance for the brass ring. If you didn’t grab it this time, the carousel would go around again and again. But now it is creaking to a stop, you missed it, there’s not even one more chance.”
“Are you saying it’s all hopeless?”
“No, no I’m not saying that. I’m saying that you have to realign your thinking just as you have to realign your physical activity. A new book that discusses the 40 to 65 year range is titled Prime Time. I believe that, too. If you can make the necessary adjustments, I’m pretty sure it is the prime time. You know, I would have thought the first few years of marriage to Judson would have been the bad ones. I remember that you kept your marriage secret for six months or more. We all thought, of course, that was to confuse, the count, but it obviously wasn’t for that.”
“No, I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t. Though I don’t know why any of you thought we cared about a thing like that. We were not exactly strong on conventions.” She laughed a moment at the memory, “Besides, Hennessey had said, as I’m sure he did to you, that a six- or seven-month baby would entitle us to be honorary citizens of Augusta.”
“Judson looked awfully well dressed that night,” I said. When I had roomed with him, he kept his clothes on the floor of his closet and generally wore anything he picked up. He seldom wore matching socks because he would just pick up two from his drawer or from the floor and wear them. He paid no attention at all to color combinations or any other customs of dress. Where a dress code demanded a coat and tie, he wore a coat and a tie, but it was any coat and tie. He told me once that he had really liked the army uniform because he never had to make any decisions about what to wear. That was the only indication I had that he’d ever thought about clothes. Karlene laughed when I told her what I was thinking.
“He’s not much better now,” she said. “To get him to look decent, I have to put out clothes for him to wear. Otherwise, he will wear anything. One day recently, he wore a pair of beat-up gardening shoes to his office. When I fussed at him, he just shrugged his shoulders. ‘Oh, they’re okay,” he said. He can get away with it, too. He’s so unconscious of anything being awry that you feel he must be right and that everyone else has chosen the wrong clothes.”
“Does he still read all the time?” I asked. When we were roommates he never seemed to study, but he read almost continuously. Mostly he read paperbacks, apparently so he could stick them in his pocket. He never talked about the books he read, never recommended one to anyone; but simply read as if he were in a trance. He would read at parties, on buses, and even while walking. He used to go to a rather horrible restaurant for dinner and take out his book and read while his food grew cold. Suddenly, he would put the book down, gobble the now cold food, and pick up his book again. It was not at all clear that he knew what he had eaten.
“He still does the same,” she said. “I’ve been tempted to boil him a shoe and let him eat it like Chaplin did in the Gold Rush, but he’d simply eat and never notice it. He’s a hard man to beat. I’ve never heard anyone ask him if he’d read a certain book that he didn’t say that he had. I secretly timed him one night and discovered that he was reading about 1800 words a minute. When I told him about it, he said he wasn’t trying to read fast, he was just reading for pleasure.” She shook her head. “I’ve no idea what he considers fast reading.”
“I gather he’s doing okay at his work. He said he was a department chief at Vale Research.”
“Oh, yes, one might say he’s had a phenomenal career, really. He never did get above his bachelor’s in electrical engineering, but you know how he always seemed to know something about whatever was needed at the moment. That has been a major benefit in his job. He’s done fine.”
“Vale has a reputation for being a man-eater,” I said. “I’ve heard you have to be a ‘corporation man’ in the worst way to survive there. How can Judson be like that?”
“Ah, Joe,” she said, “he’s the easiest man in the world to underestimate. I’ve heard from his friends how he beat the army by simply being their first enthusiastic soldier. Well, he licked the corporation, too, but in a different way.”
“How? What do you mean?”
She grinned. “It’s astonishing. He does everything that a competitive executive shouldn’t do. It’s unbelievable. To his boss he gives all the credit to his subordinates. To his boss’s boss, all credit is given to his boss. Even when he, himself, does something well, all the credit is given to others. He is quick to take the blame for all mishaps. He cooperates with all other department heads and never indulges in any sort of back stabbing. He works his eight hours and quits, paying no attention to the twelve-hour day put in by most of the executives. His bosses love him, and his people would do anything for him.”
She stared into her glass and impaled an olive on the stirrer. “Judson is different, you know. There’s nobody else remotely like him. Remote, that’s the word. You can admire him, laugh at him, love him; but he is remote. One reason I haven’t left him is the fear that he might not notice I was gone. But, Joe, I’ll tell you one thing; at least, Judson is real. Damn near everybody I know or meet seems completely phony. But Judson is never, never phony. I probably couldn’t stand any other man after him.”
We sat quietly for a few moments. Her thoughts seemed to be directed inward. She turned her glass slowly around and around in a ring of water from the condensation.
Finally, I said, “Well, if you are determined to cast me as Ann Landers, I can at least repeat some of the advice she gives her readers. She always says to base your decision on the judgment: Would I be better off without him?”
“That’s not so damn easy, is it? That’s just what I’m talking about, isn’t it?”
“Well,” I said, “at least you don’t have to consider anyone else. Maybe that’s all anyone ever does, but in your case, since there are no children, that’s all you need to do. There is some point to Ann Lander’s advice, after all. It means you should think only of yourself and not of him.”
“Oh hell,” she said, “that’s impossible. I love him. I have lived with him for a lifetime. I have to consider him. Even Judson wouldn’t give me stupid advice like that if I asked him whether I should leave him.”
Thoroughly nettled, I said, “Why don’t you ask him?”
“You know, I think I’ll do just that. Now don’t be a sorehead. You have helped by talking to me. I feel better. I may still be able to work it out.”
Two years later, I found myself back in Newport in the same motel. I opened the telephone book. There was a “Southern, Wilfred” and next came “Southland Motors,” but there was no “Southers,” “Judson A.” or otherwise.
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display type is Eve Bold. Paper is Sulgave Text, Laid, Subs. 60. (A very difficult paper for me to print on.) Published by Jake Warner and 460 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press at Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.