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Authors: Richard Ford

Let Me Be Frank With You

BOOK: Let Me Be Frank With You
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DEDICATION

Kristina

CONTENTS

Dedication

I'm Here

Everything Could Be Worse

The New Normal

Deaths of Others

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Also by Richard Ford

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

I'm Here

S
TRANGE FRAGRANCES RIDE THE TWITCHY
, wintry air at The Shore this morning, two weeks before Christmas. Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.

It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean's sulfurous weft and Barnegat Bay's landward stink. It is the air of full-on disaster. To my nose—once practiced in these things—nothing smells of ruin as fragrantly as the first attempts at rescue.

I notice it first at the red light at Hooper Ave., and then again when I gas up my Sonata at the Hess, before heading to the bridge, Toms River to Sea-Clift. Here in the rich gas-station scents, a wintry breeze flitters my hair while my dollars spool along like a slot machine in the gathering
December clouds. Breeze has set the silver whirly-gigs to spinning at the Grandly Re-Opened Bed Bath & Beyond at the Ocean County Mall (“Only new bedding can keep us down”). Across its acres of parking, a tenth full at ten
A.M
., the Home Depot—Kremlin-like, but enigmatically-still-your-friend-in-spite-of-all—has thrown its doors open wide and early. Customers trail out, balancing boxes of new toilet works, new motherboards, new wiring harnesses, shrink-wrapped hinge assemblies, hollow-core doors, an entire front stoop teetering on a giant shopping cart. All is on its way to some still-standing domicile blotto'd by the hurricane—six weeks past, but not lost from memory. Everyone's still stunned here—quarrelsome, funked, put-upon-but-resolute. All are committed to “coming back.”

Out here, under the Hess awning, someone's piped in loud, sports-talk radio for us customers—the
Pat 'n' Mike Show
from Magic 107 in Trenton. I was once among their faithful. They're old now. A booming voice—it's Mike—declares, “Wowee, Patrick. Coach Benziwicki cut loose quite a hurricane of F-BOMBS, I'm telling you. A real thirty-seconds-over-Tokyo.”

“Let's listen to it again,” Pat says, through a speaker built deep inside the gas pump. “Total disbelief.
To
-tal. This was on
ESPN!

Another gravelly, exhausted, recorded voice—Coach
B's—takes up, in a fury: “Okay. Let me just tell you so-called F-BOMB sportswriters one F-BOMB thing. Okay, you F-BOMBS? When
you
can F-BOMB coach a team of nine-year-old F-BOMB grammar school girls, then I might,
might
give you one shred of F-BOMB respect. Until then, you F-BOMBS, you can DOUBLE F-BOMB yourselves from here to F-BOMB Sunday dinner. You heard it here first.”

The vacant-eyed, white-suited young Hess attendant who's pumping my gas hears nothing. He looks at me as if I wasn't here.

“That about says it all, I guess,” Mike concedes.

“And
then
some,” Pat concurs. “Just drop your keys on the desk, Coach. You're done. Take the F-BOMB
bus
back to F-BOMB Chillicothe.”

“Un-F-BOMB-believable.”

“Let's pause for a break, you F-BOMB.”

“Me? You're the F-BOMB. Ha-ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha-ha.”

I
N RECENT WEEKS
, I'
VE BEGUN COMPILING A PERSONAL
inventory of words that, in my view, should no longer be usable—in speech or
any
form. This, in the belief that life's a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence, after which all mentation goes and we head off to our own virtual Chillicothes. A reserve of fewer, better
words could help, I think, by setting an example for clearer thinking. It's not so different from moving to Prague and not learning the language, so that the English you end up speaking to make yourself understood bears a special responsibility to be clear, simple, and value-bearing. When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway. Not that much is happening, except on the medical front. Better to strip things down. And where better to start stripping than the
words
we choose to express our increasingly rare, increasingly vagrant thoughts. It would be challenging, for instance, for a native Czech speaker to fully appreciate the words
poop
or
friggin'
, or the phrase “We're pregnant,” or “What's the takeaway?” Or, for that matter,
awesome
when it only means “tolerable.” Or
preemie
or
mentee
or
legacy
. Or
no problem
when you really mean “You're welcome.” Likewise,
soft landing, sibs, bond, hydrate
(when it just means “drink”),
make art, share, reach out, noise
used as a verb, and . . . apropos of Magic One-Oh-Seven:
F-Bomb. Fuck
, to me, is still pretty serviceable as a noun, verb, or adjective, with clear and distinct colorations to its already rich history. Language imitates the public riot, the poet said. And what's today's life
like
, if not a riot?

Y
ESTERDAY, JUST PAST EIGHT, AN UNEXPECTED PHONE
call disrupted my morning. My wife, Sally, answered but
got me out of bed to talk. I'd been lying awake in the early sunlight and shadows, daydreaming about the possibility that somewhere, somehow, some good thing was going on that would soon affect me and make me happy, only I didn't know it yet. Since I took leave of the real-estate business (after decades), anticipation of this kind is the thing I keenly miss. Though it's the only thing, given how realty matters have gone and all that's happened to me. I am content here in Haddam, aged sixty-eight, enjoying the Next Level of life—conceivably the last: a member of the clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world, should I choose to. In that spirit, I travel once a week up to Newark Liberty with a veterans' group, to greet the weary, puzzled, returning troopers home-cycling-in from Afghanistan and Iraq. I don't truly credit this as a “commitment” or a true “giving back,” since it's hardly inconvenient to stand smiling, hand outstretched, loudly declaring, “Welcome home, soldier (or sailor or airman)! Thank you for your service!” It's more grandstanding than serious, and mostly meant to demonstrate that
we're
still relevant, and thus is guaranteed to prove we're not. In any case, my personal sensors are on alert for more I can do that's positive with my end-of-days' time—known otherwise as
retirement
.

“Frank? It's Arnie Urquhart,” a gruff, male, too-loud telephone voice crackled through distant girdering,
automotive-traffic noises. Somewhere in the background was music—Peter, Paul & Mary singing “Lemon Tree” from faraway '65. “Le-mun tree, ve-ry pritty / and the lemun flower is sweet . . .” Where I was standing in my pajamas, staring out the front window as the Elizabethtown Water meter-reader strode up the front walk to check on our consumption, my mind fled back to the face of ultra-sensual
Mary
—cruel-mouthed, earthy, blond hair slashing, her alto-voiced promise of no-nonsense coitus you'd renounce all dignity for, while knowing full well you wouldn't make the grade. A far cry from how she ended life years on—muu-muu'd and unrecognizable. (Which one of the other two was the weenie-waver? One moved to Maine.) “. . . but the fruit of the poor lemun is im-poss-i-bul to eat . . .”

“Turn something down, Arnie,” I said through the noise-clutter to wherever Arnie was on the planet. “I can't hear you.”

“Oh yeah. Okay.” A slurping wind-noise of glass being powered closed. Poor Mary went silent as the stone she's buried under.

The connection was clearer, then went vacant a long moment. I don't talk to people on the phone that much anymore.

“Why do weathermen all wish for a fuckin' sunny day?” Arnie said, now at a distance from the phone. He'd put me on
speaker
and seemed to be talking out of the past.

“It's in their DNA,” I said from my front window.

“Yep, yep.” Arnie sighed a great rattling sigh. Cars were audibly whizzing past wherever he was.

“Where
are
you, Arnie?”

“Pulled over on the goddamned Garden State, by Cheesequake. Heading down to Sea-Clift, or whatever the fuck's left of it.”

“I see,” I said. “How's your house?”


Do
you see, Frank? Well, I'm glad you fuckin' see.”

Back in the bonanza days of the now-popped realty bubble, I sold Arnie not just
a
house, but
my
house. In Sea-Clift. A tall, glass-and-redwood, architect-design beach palace, flush up against what seemed to be a benign and glimmering sea. Anybody's dream of a second home. I saw to it Arnie coughed up a pretty penny (two-point-eight, no “vig” on a private sale). Sally and I had decided to move inland. I was ready to take down my shingle. It was eight years ago, this fall—two weeks before Christmas, like now.

In my defense, I'd made several calls up to Arnie's principal residence in Hopatcong, to learn how his/my beach house had weathered the storm. I'd called several old clients, including my former realty partner. All their news was bad, bad, bad. In Haddam, Sally and I lost only two small oak saplings (one already dead), half the roof on her potting shed, plus a cracked windshield on my car. “A big nothing,” as my mother
used to say, before making a
pppttt
farting noise with her lips and laughing out loud.

“I called you, probably three times, Arnie,” I said, feeling the curdling, giddy sensation of being a liar—though I'm not, not about this.

The Elizabethtown guy gave me the thumbs-up as he headed out to his truck. Our water usage for November—not a problem.

“That's like calling the corpse to say you're sorry he's dead.” Arnie's speaker-phone voice faded out and in from Cheesequake. “What were you going to suggest, Frank? Take me to lunch? Buy your house back? There's no fuckin' house left down there, you jackass.”

I didn't have an answer. Patent gestures of kindness, commiseration, fellow-feeling, shared sorrow and empathy—all are weak sisters in the fight against real loss. I'd only wanted to know the worst hadn't happened—which, I saw, it hadn't. Though Sea-Clift was where the big blow had come ashore like Dunkirk. No chance to dodge a bullet.

“I'm not blaming
you
, Frank. That's not why I'm on the blower here.” Arnie Urquhart is an ancient Michigan Wolverine like me. Class of '68. Hockey. Rhodes finalist. Lambda Chi. Navy Cross. We all talked like that in those breezy, troubled days. The blower. The crapper. The Z-machine. The
libes. The gazoo. Boogies. Gooks. Hogans . . . it's a wonder any of us were ever allowed to hold a paying job. Arnie owns and runs—or did—a carriage-trade seafood boutique in north Jersey and has made a mint selling shad roe, Iranian caviar, and imported Black Sea delicacies the FDA doesn't know about—all of it delivered in unidentifiable, white panel trucks—to Schlumberger execs for exclusive parties no one hears about, including President Obama, who wouldn't be invited, since in the high-roller Republicans' view, chitlins' and hog-maws wouldn't be on the menu.

“How can I help, Arnie?” I was watching the Elizabethtown truck motor away down Wilson Lane. Clients' first target of opportunity when a home sale goes sour—no matter when—is almost always the realtor, whose intentions are almost always good.

“I'm on my way down there now, Frank. Some Italian piece of shit called me up at home. Wants to buy the lot and the house—whatever's left of it—for five hundred grand. I need some advice. You got any?” More cars whizzing.

BOOK: Let Me Be Frank With You
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