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Authors: Richard Ford

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BOOK: Let Me Be Frank With You
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“I'm not using any of mine, Arnie,” I said. “What's the situation down there?”

I, of course, knew. We'd all seen it on CNN, then seen it and seen it and seen it 'til we didn't care anymore. Nagasaki-by-the-sea—with the Giants and Falcons just a tempting channel click away.

“You'll get a kick out of it, Frank,” Arnie said, disembodied in his car. “Where is it you live now?”

“Haddam.” Sally had come to the door from the kitchen in her yoga clothes, holding a tea mug to her lips, breathing steam away, looking at me as if she'd heard something distressing and I should possibly hang up.

A loud truck-horn blare cracked the silence where Arnie was. “Ass Hole,” Arnie shouted. “Haddam. Okay. Nice place. Or it was once.” Arnie bumped something against the speaker. “My house—
your
house—is sixty yards inland now, Frank. On its side—if it had a side. The neighbors are all worse off. The Farlows tried to ride it out in their safe room. They're goners. The Snedikers made a run for it at the last minute. Ended up in the bay. Barb and I were at Lake Sunapee at my son's. We watched it. I saw my house on TV before I saw it in person.”

“I guess that could be good news.”

Arnie didn't respond.

“What d'you want me to do, Arnie?”

“I'm driving down to meet the cocksuckers.
Flip
companies. You heard of them? Speculators.” Arnie had started speaking in some kind of tough-guy, Jersey gangster growl.

“I heard about them.” I'd read about it all in the
Times
.

“So you see the whole deal. I need your advice, Frank. You used to be honest.”

“I've been out of the realty business a while, Arnie. My license is expired. All I know is what I read in the newspaper.”

“It'll make you more reliable. Take away the profit motive. I'm not planning to shoot you, if you're worried about that.”

“I hadn't quite gotten to there, Arnie.” Though I had. It had already happened. Once in Ortley Beach, once in Sea Girt. Listing agents shot sitting at their desks, typing out offer sheets.

“So. Are you gonna show up? I could say you owe me.” Another truck's withering horn went blasting past. “Jesus. These fucks.
I'm
gonna get killed out here. So?”

“Okay, I'll come,” I said, just to get Arnie off the road shoulder and on to the scene of destruction.

“Eleven o'clock tomorrow. At the house,” Arnie said. “Or where it used to be. You
might
recognize it. I'm driving a silver Lexus.”

“I'll be there.”

“Are we gonna have NHL this year, Frank?” Hockey. Destruction's great leveler.

“I haven't really kept up, Arnie.”

“The shit-for-brains players,” Arnie said. “They got the best deal they'll ever get. Now they'll have to settle for less. Sound familiar?” As always, Arnie was on management's side. “Hail to the Victors, Frank.”

“Champions of the West, Arnie.”

“Mañana en la mañana.” Which seemed to be how Arnie said thanks.

O
UT ON
L
ITTLE
L
EAGUE
W
ORLD
C
HAMPIONS
B
OULEVARD
, Toms River, nothing looks radically changed stormwise. In a purely retinal sense, the barrier island across the bay has done its god-given work for the inland communities, though much lies in ruins here, back in the neighborhoods. Traffic is anemic along the once–Miracle Mile, headed toward the bridge. It's plain, though, that Toms River has claimed some survivor's cred. A beardless Santa sits on a red plastic milk crate in front of the Launch Pad coffee hut (he's clearly a Mexican), a red, printed-cardboard sign resting against his knee.
COFFEE GIVES YOU COURAGE. FELIZ NAVIDAD
. I wave, but he only stares back, as if I might be giving him the finger. Farther on, the Free At Last Bail Bonds has only a single car parked in front, as do a couple of boxy, asbestos-sided bars set back in the gravel lots. Days were—before The Shore got re-discovered and prices went nuts—you could drive over from Pottstown, take the kids and your honeybee for a weekend, and get away for a couple hundred. All that's a dream now, even after the storm. A big
sign—part of its message torn off by the winds—advertises the Glen Campbell Good-bye Tour. Half of Glen's smiling, too-handsome face remains, a photo from the '60s—before Tanya and the boozing and the cocaine. A paper placard in front of one of the bars—stolen off someone's lawn after the election—has been re-purposed and instead of “Obama-Biden” now announces, “We're Back. So Fuck You, Sandy.”

Driving, I've got Copland's
Fanfare
filling the interior space at ten thirty. I bought the whole oeuvre online. As always, I'm stirred by the opening oboes giving ground to the strings then the kettle drums and the double basses. It's a high-sky morning in Wyoming. Joel McCrea's galloping across a windy prairie. Barbara Britton, fresh from Vermont, stands out front of their sodbuster cabin.
Why is he so late? Is there trouble? What can I do, a woman alone?
I've worn out three disks this fall. Almost any Copland (today it's the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by some Israeli) can persuade me on almost any given day that I'm not just any old man doing something old men do: driving to the grocery for soy milk, visiting the periodontist, motoring to the airport to greet young soldiers—sometimes against their wills. It doesn't take much to change my perspective on a given day—or a given moment, or a given anything. Sally slipped a Copland in my Christmas stocking a year ago (
Billy the
Kid
), and it's had positive effects. I bought
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
as a present to myself but haven't made much progress there—though I need to.

I haven't had time to look up Arnie Urquhart's home-sale paperwork from '04—whether he financed, if he took a balloon, or just peeled bills off a fat wad. I, of course, ought to remember the transaction, since it was
my
house, and I pocketed the dough—used to finance our house in Haddam, with plenty left over. Though like a lot of things I should do, I often don't. It's not true that as you get older things slide away like molasses off a table top. What
is
true is I don't remember some things that well, owing to the fact that I don't care all that much. I now wear a cheap Swatch watch, but I do sometimes lose the handle on the day of the month, especially near the end and the beginning, when I get off-track about “thirty days hath September . . .” This, I believe, is normal and doesn't worry me. It's not as if I put my trousers on backwards every morning, tie my shoelaces together, and can't find my way to the mailbox. My only persistent bother is an occasionally painful subluxation (a keeper word) in my C-3 and C-4. It causes me to feel “Rice Krispies” in my neck, plus an ache when I twist back and forth, so that I don't do that as much. I fear it may be restricting signals to my brain. My orthopedist at Haddam Medical, Dr. Zippee (a Pakistani and a prime asshole), asked if I wanted him to order up “some blood work” to
find out if I'm a candidate for Alzheimer's. (It made him gleeful to suggest this.) “Thanks, but I guess not,” I said, standing in his tiny green cubicle in a freezing-ass, flower-print examination gown. “I'm not sure what I'd do with the information.” “You'd probably forget it,” he said, gloating. He's also told me that a usually unobserved vertical crease down the earlobe is a “good marker” for heart disease. I, of course, have one, though it isn't deep—which I hope is a positive sign.

My view of the “Big A,” though—should I ever have it—is that it quickly becomes its own comfort zone and is not as bad as it's billed. Dr. Zippee, who attended med school in Karachi and interned down at Hopkins, travels back to the old country every winter to work in a madrassa (whatever that is). He complains to me that America, in its vengeful zeal to run the world, has ruined life where he came from; that the Taliban started out as good guys who were on our side. But now, thanks to us, the streets aren't safe at night. I tell him, to me Pakistanis and Indians are the same people, like Israelis and Arabs, and northern and southern Irishmen. Religion's just their excuse to maim and incinerate each other—otherwise they'd die of boredom. “Awesome,” he says and laughs like a chimp. He's recently bought a cottage on Mount Desert and hopes soon to leave New Jersey behind. In his view, life is about pain management, and I need to do a better job managing mine.

Copland's soaring as I make it out onto the bridge. Barnegat Bay, this morning, is a sea of sequins the wind plays over, with the long island and Seaside Heights out ahead, appearing, in a moment of spearing sunlight, to be unchanged. Gulls are towering. A few tiny numbered sails are dimpling far out on a gusty land breeze. The temperature's topped out at thirty-five. You'd need to be a show-off to be on the water. I'm certain I'm dressed too lightly, though I'm elated to be back at The Shore, even to face disaster. Our true emotions are never conventional.

An Air-Tran—one of the old vibrator 737s—is just nosing up from Atlantic City into the low, gray ceiling, full of sleepy gamblers, headed back to Milwaukee. I can make out the lowercase “a” on its tail, as it disappears into the fog off the ocean side where my old house once sat, but apparently sits no more.

L
ATER YESTERDAY MORNING, AFTER
I
SPOKE TO
Arnie, Sally came downstairs to where I was eating my All-Bran, and stood staring, musing through the window into the back yard at the late-autumn squirrel activity. I was pleased to be thinking nothing worth recording, not about Arnie Urquhart, just breathing to the cadence of my chews. After a while of not speaking, she sat down across from me,
holding a book I'd noticed her reading late into the night—her light stayed on after I'd gone to sleep, then was switched off, then on again later. It's not unusual for people our age.

“I read this shocking thing last night.” She held the book she'd been engrossed by, clutched to her yoga shirt. Her eyes were intent. She seemed worried. I couldn't make out the book's spine but understood she meant to tell me about it.

“Tell me,” I said.

“Well.” She pursed her lips. “Back in 1862, right when the Civil War was in full swing, the U.S. Cavalry had time to put down an Indian revolt in Minnesota. Did you know that?”

“I did,” I said. “The Dakota uprising. It's pretty famous.”

“Okay. You know about it. I didn't.”

“I know
some
things,” I said and stared down at a banana slice.

“Okay. But. In December of 1862, our government hanged thirty-eight Sioux warriors on one big scaffold. Just did it all at once.”

“That's famous, too,” I said. “Supposedly they'd massacred eight hundred white people. Not that
that's
an excuse.”

Sally took in a breath and turned her head away in a manner to indicate a tear she didn't want seen might be wobbling out of her eyes. “But do you know what they said?” These words were nearly choked with throat-clogging emotion.

“What
who
said?”

“The Indians. They all began shouting out as they were standing on the gallows, waiting to drop and never speak again.”

I didn't know. But I looked up to let her understand I realized this was important to her, and that the next thing she said would be important to me. Possibly my spoon had paused on its upward arc toward my mouth. I may have shaken my head in amazement.

“They all shouted, ‘I'm here!' They started calling that out in their Sioux language, all around that awful contraption that was about to kill them. People who heard it said it was awe-inspiring.” (Not awesome.) “No one ever forgot it. Then they hanged them. All of them. At one moment. ‘I'm here.' As if that made it all right for them. Made death tolerable and less awful. It gave them strength.” Sally shook her head. Her tear of anguish for long-ago 1862 did not emerge. She held her book tight to her front and smiled at me mournfully, across the glass-topped table where I've eaten possibly three thousand breakfasts. “I just thought you'd want to know about that. I'm sorry to ruin your breakfast.”

“I'm glad to know about it, sweetheart,” I said. “It didn't ruin my breakfast at all.”

“I'm here,” she said and seemed to embarrass herself.

“So am I,” I said.

And with those words she got up, came around the square
table, kissed me once on my forehead, still embarrassed, then went away, carrying her book back to where she'd come from in the house.

M
IDWAY ON THE BRIDGE, HEADED ACROSS TO DARKEST
Seaside Heights, where who knows what awaits me (heartstrings plucked, outrage, wronged rectitude, and all that's right corrupted), I realize there's nothing I can really do for Arnie Urquhart's domiciliary suffering, or to make things jake. Jake's already blown out the window and all but forgotten, from what I've seen on TV. And yet: you bear
some
responsibility to another human you sell a house to. Not a financial one. Conceivably not a moral one. But one in which, even rarer, the professional and human operate on a single set of rails. A priestly, vocational responsibility. Though for all I know, Arnie might just as easily feel
relief
that his house is an ass-over-teacups total loss. It may have been just the thing he'd lain in bed and dreamed about—like the day you sell your vintage, lap-sided Lyman in-board: the runner-up best day of your life, after the day you bought it. Second-house ownership is often like that. People know they're going to rue the day long before they sign the papers—but they do it anyway. Arnie may just be pretending to mourn. After all, he now owns a hunk of prime, undeveloped oceanfront—even
if the taxes stay high. He can sit tight and wait for destiny—assuming anybody ever wants oceanfront again.

BOOK: Let Me Be Frank With You
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