Swimming with Bridgeport Girls
I AM THE MILLION-DOLLAR STRANGER
. . . it’s unfathomable to me that I would have to get a restraining order against R, but somehow that’s what it’s come to. I know he’s been in the house, going through things and doing God knows what else, but he won’t admit it, and he won’t stop. I don’t even know who this person is anymore. He’s turned into a character in a Warren Zevon song . . .
OK. ALLOW ME TO SAY at least this much in my own defense: I did not kidnap the dog. People said I did, and then it got repeated a bunch of times by the media, Ray Parisi kidnapped a dog, Ray Parisi kidnapped a dog, but it didn’t happen. You can’t kidnap your own dog. What you can do is a have a disastrous afternoon at Belmont Park, maybe commit what some would classify as a felony out there, and then it could be that you borrow the dog from your old yard and fall asleep before you can return him. And then L could get home from work in the city and find him missing. That could happen. If it does, then the Cobra CXT 1000 walkie-talkie in your motel room will go kssshhh for the first time in well over a year. If you’d given L the mate to it and instructed her to use it only when she’d decided to get back together with you, then you probably would’ve answered it whether a missing canine was conked out at your feet or not. If you’d given it any thought, you probably
would’ve realized you were being set up. But if you were half asleep and wholly lovesick, you might pick that squawking sucker up.
You shouldn’t. You should take a second and think it through. But what’s about to become very clear to anyone who hasn’t already heard this story (or at least the story of the Million-Dollar Stranger, which I guess this sort of is) is that thinking things through has never been anything resembling a strength of mine, and when given a choice between doing something I should do and something I shouldn’t, I’m a remarkably strong candidate to do the latter. Which is why I routinely found myself in situations like this:
Kssshhh. “Raymond?” Kssshhh. “This is so ridiculous.” Kssshhh. “Raymond!”
“Ray here. Over.”
Kssshhh. “Are you sleeping? It’s five-thirty in the afternoon.” Kssshhh. “Hello?”
“You didn’t say over,” I said. “Over.”
“You have to say over. Over.”
Kssshhh. “I said, are you sleeping? Or maybe you’re just high for a change.”
“You’re not saying over,” I said again, before surveying the motel room, where the dog, Bruce, was asleep at my feet. The room’s nautical theme was supposed to suggest the feeling of mild ocean breezes and the boundless optimism of an encroaching horizon, but it only served to make me feel like I was on a sinking ship. In that regard, it was a shitty but honest room, and had been for well over a year, when things had taken a bad turn and paused.
Kssshhh. “Call me on a real phone. This is absurd.”
After L had banished me from the house and forced me to sign a shockingly quick no-contest divorce, I’d gotten a room at the Parkway Motor Lodge, which was just down the hill from where we used to live
on Archer Street. The first thing I did was buy a pair of Cobra CXT 1000s from the Sarge, the ex-marine who runs the package store next to the motel. Since L wouldn’t see me at the time for reasons we’ll be getting into, I left her handset on the front porch of the house with a note telling her to tune it to Channel 3 and contact me when she was ready to reconcile. As the CXT 1000 has a radius of thirty-seven miles, I knew I was never more than thirty minutes away from having my old life back, and this was a comfort whether it sounds like one or not. Whenever I’d get depressed over the fact that L hadn’t radioed yet, I’d reassure myself by speculating that her batteries had gone dead, or that perhaps she had forgotten the required channel number (this was folly, of course, as she was a lawyer and forgot precisely nothing, which was why I was living at a motel in the first place). Oftentimes, when I wasn’t at the casino making matters worse, I’d drive up to the house and loiter around the neighborhood until she got home, at which point I’d tell her I was worried that her batteries might be dead, and she’d threaten to get a restraining order if I didn’t leave the property immediately. This might have happened more than once. I should admit that. I should also admit that there might have been a couple of times where I checked on the state of the batteries myself, and needed to go inside the house to do that. I was not snooping around, however. Or at least I never intended to. It certainly wasn’t my decision to store her handset in the same drawer she put her journal in. She did that on her own, and I’m not equipped with whatever set of characteristics make up the kind of person who would ignore that kind of thing once he stumbled on it. I’m sure there are guys like that out there, people who would just close the drawer without rooting around, but those are the guys who volunteered to join the military after 9/11, or became smoke jumpers, or members of Doctors Without Borders. Personally, I’ve never met a single one of those cats. There really can’t be very many of them.
On the day I finally heard the kssshhh I’d been waiting for, the dog and I were both asleep, like I said, and any euphoria I felt when I first
heard the sound of the Cobra was immediately extinguished by L’s annoyed tone and refusal to use proper radio language. See, when we’d moved to Atlanta and L had started undergrad at Emory, we’d lived in a little apartment in a place called Cabbagetown and communicated with our neighbors via walkie-talkie. It started out as a cheeky birthday present we grabbed at Radio Shack for Kiki and Lew, the hippie couple who lived over the stained glass and pottery shop next door, and then it spread throughout the neighborhood in the way a gimmick like that can among young, carefree people to whom nothing has really happened yet. Within weeks, everyone in a three-block radius had handsets and a handle. If there was a dinner party being planned, or someone needed to borrow a shovel, or a pet had gone missing, you’d get a call on the walkie-talkie instead of getting, say, a text like you would in a normal neighborhood scenario. Why does this matter? It matters because L knew the proper radio lingo. She knew to say over. And she wasn’t saying over. Which meant she wasn’t calling to get back together. Which meant she had used the walkie-talkie to trick me. Which meant she was looking for the dog.
Confronted with a clear dilemma, I did what came most naturally: sat there and did nothing and hoped for the situation to resolve itself on its own. This tactic worked about as well as it normally did.
Kssshhh. “You have five seconds to call me or I’m getting the restraining order. You copy that?”
“Ten-four,” I finally answered.
There was no getting around it, so I picked up the room phone, since my cell was dead and I had left my charger at Dawn’s. But first I looked at Bruce. Locked eyes with him and sent him a message in the way you can with a dog you’ve had for a long time. “Hey. You. Listen to me,” I transmitted. “You are not here, OK? Be good. Be. Good. I’m fucking serious.”
He rolled over on his back, waved a paw in the air, and kept waving it until I grabbed it with my good hand (a cast was on the other)
and sniffed it. It was his only trick, and it wasn’t much of a trick at all. Now, other golden retrievers actually engaged in worthwhile domestic endeavors, like fetching the morning paper, or even noble societal ones, like leading the blind. Those dogs made some kind of significant effort to be more than animals. Rise above their station in life. Not Bruce. His thing was having his paws sniffed. Why? Because L had been doing it ever since we picked him out in Ed and Kay Kinder’s barn near Athens years before, and he had gotten used to it, that’s why. She lifted him out of a litter of eleven and carried him over to me, announcing, “This one’s feet smell like Fritos.” Every chance she got, she would grab his paws, sniff, and say, “Still Fritos,” and somewhere along the line he developed a habit of rolling on his back and frantically waving his paws in the air until you sniffed them. It depressed me to no end, not because it was ridiculous, which it obviously was, but because I wasn’t around to watch L do it anymore, and doing it myself only served to accentuate my loneliness.
I dialed my old number on the room phone. I was not looking forward to it. There was nothing to do but the thing the guilty have done since the dawn of man: deny everything and hope for the best.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey nothing, Ray. Where is he?”
“You know perfectly well who. And what’s wrong with your cell phone? I texted you fifty times.”
“Can’t find my charger,” I said, giving Bruce another stern look to remind him to keep his shit together. “Anything the matter?”
“I don’t hear any slot machines. You must be calling from the Motor Lodge.”
“How much longer are you going to stay at that place?”
“You tell me,” I said, fishing.
“You getting on with your life has nothing to do with me.”
This comment stung, but I had heard far worse from her without getting discouraged, believe me.
“I’ll be coming into some money soon,” I said. “I won’t be here that much longer.”
I knew that wasn’t the right thing to say, but I was trying to put on the air of a man on the upswing, someone displaying growth and prospects, and not a person who had been living at a motel for over a year, circling the American drain.
“Ah. That’s right,” she said. “The father who miraculously rose from the dead only to die again. Good old Lazarus Parisi.”
“I don’t want to talk about that. I have no interest whatsoever in talking about that.”
“Fine. What do you want to talk about, then?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Why would I be kid— Why are you swearing at me?”
“I want that dog back this instant, Raymond.”
“What?” I said, scratching behind Bruce’s velvety ear.
I looked to the nightstand, where there was about a third of a joint left, just enough to take the edge off, but I didn’t spark it for fear L would hear.
“I’m only going to say this one time: If you don’t get the dog back here in ten minutes, I’m going to get that restraining order. And I am not kidding. This is not the day for this.”
“I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You’re saying you don’t have him?”
“Bruce? Why would I have Bruce?” I said, scratching his other ear and looking at the joint. What was the best thing to do here? The cast and the old-school telephone made this a very tough situation. I figured, what, tuck the phone between my ear and shoulder, put the
joint in my mouth, and light it with my good hand? Would that be audible?
“He’s not in the yard.”
“Maybe he’s in the house,” I said, experimenting with the joint-lighting strategy. The phone between the shoulder and ear was a shaky proposition.
“I’m in the house.”
“Well, how the hell do I know what’s going on over there?”
“Because you’re in here as much as I am,” she said. “There’s a ring from a soda can on my journal, by the way. I don’t suppose that’s something you know anything about, either.”
I did know something about that. I was drinking a cream soda a few weeks earlier when I went to check on her Cobra batteries and stumbled on her journal, which I took to Kinko’s and then returned to the drawer. That might sound wrong, photocopying someone’s diary, but she was my wife, after all, or had been for ten years, and she wasn’t talking to me, so how else was I supposed to get a feel for her state of mind? I mean, in times of war and crisis, hasn’t espionage always had its rightful place?
Before I could deny knowledge of the soda ring, my bronchitis or whatever the hell I had kicked in, and I went on a major coughing jag. When it subsided, I gave up on the joint idea and took a swig of the minuscule amount of NyQuil that was left on the nightstand.
“You sound like shit,” L said.
“I’m good,” I managed. “I’m OK.”
I cleared my throat and looked up at the oil painting hanging over the TV: an aging sea captain shaking his fist at the heavens as a wild storm breaks all around him. I thought of my early days as a fledgling sportswriter, when L came with me on a tour-of-minor-league-ballparks article I did for the Journal-Constitution. We stayed in places like the Parkway Motor Lodge in a variety of Southern towns, faux-wood-paneled shit boxes that all had low-grade oil paintings of angry
mariners and morose clowns and winged horses on the walls. We used to love to lie in bed and make up titles for them. I used to get high at the Motor Lodge and imagine her curled up next to me. She’d look at the painting in my room and say, “Misfortune Knows No Shores.” I’d laugh and offer, “Curse of the Scalawag.” And then she’d laugh and say, “The Old Man and the Plea.” And then I’d laugh and say—
“Are you listening to me?”
“Copy that,” I said. “I mean, yeah.”
“Where could he be? I’m at a total loss.”
Just then I heard a commotion out in the parking lot. Bruce jumped off the bed and ran to the window to investigate, his sudden leap shaking the recently replaced nightstand lamp, a wooden ship with a lightbulb in the crow’s nest. Bruce shoved his snout between the drapes and broke out a low growl. This normally would have amused me, seeing as how he was a coward through and through, only this time it wasn’t funny because I didn’t need him making a racket and tipping L off to his whereabouts. While I was stalling her, it occurred to me that I could use his curious disappearance as an excuse to head over to the old house and search for him with her. It wasn’t what I had intended when I took him, but it was certainly an improvisational opportunity with a lot of promise. I mean, she and I could team up, get the old camaraderie going, and then after a while I could suggest splitting up to cover more ground, wherein I’d take the opportunity to race back to the motel, scoop Bruce up, and arrive back at the house in triumph, claiming to have found him roaming the eighteenth fairway over at the municipal golf course. I’d throw in a funny anecdote about some shenanigans with him and some humorless duffers on eighteen, she’d invite me in, we’d fire up some mai tais, crank some Springsteen (anything but Tunnel of Love, which was his divorce record and something I just couldn’t listen to), and soon all would be forgotten. It was an idea very much worth exploring.
“What’s that noise?”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Hey—could you hold on a sec?”
I shoved the phone under the pillow and dashed over to the window, then walked out the door and into the late-day sunlight. I leaned over the balcony and stared into the parking lot with as much authority as a grown man living in a motel could muster. Two preteen boys, one fat, one skinny, sat on the curb with a pack of bottle rockets. They looked like every comedy duo there ever was.
I raised my finger to my lips and furrowed my brow. I felt like it was a very adult “Shut up or else” gesture. Confident that I had gotten my position across, I closed the door with a little extra oomph and went back inside, dragging Bruce away from the drapes and onto the bed. It took a while to get him up there. He didn’t move as well as he used to.
“Sorry about that,” I said, climbing next to the hound.
“I’m worried about Bruce,” she said. “Where could he have gone?”
“Beats me. Maybe it’s those landscapers. Wouldn’t be the first time they haven’t, you know, latched the gate or whatever.”
“It’s not the landscapers.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Boyd’s out looking for him now. He’s checking the golf course.”
Just like that, my new plan was shot. I had to shake my head. Was this losing streak ever going to end? Jesus.
“Old Man River still in the picture, is he?” I said.
“You know perfectly well what the situation is, Raymond.”
The situation was that while I was attempting to get L to engage in even the most preliminary of reconciliation talks (an effort roughly as uplifting as working in a prison laundry), a fifty-five-year-old silver-haired snake in the grass named Boyd Bollinger had somehow slithered in and ensconced himself in her life despite: 1) being old enough to be her father; 2) having not one but two bumper stickers on his champagne Lexus (I’D RATHER BE GOLFING and THE MERCHANT OF TENNIS); 3) owning a champagne Lexus in the first place; and 4) having been
the guy who invented those plastic contraptions people use to throw tennis balls to their dogs instead of just winding up and tossing the ball like a normal person. Which of these four facts was the most appalling is subject for debate, though any one of them should have precluded L from ever giving him the time of day, since he was exactly the kind of person we used to make fun of. But she hadn’t been herself since Lucille had passed, and she was furious with me for a variety of things, not least of which were lying about my past, developing a gambling addiction while she was taking care of her dying mother in South Carolina, and having an innocent yet seemingly inappropriate friendship with a woman who lived up by Mohegan Sun with her five-year-old daughter. So this Boyd character had slipped in at a weak moment.
I had seen his car in our driveway one night when I happened to be driving around my old neighborhood after another regrettable evening at the casino, and then it started appearing there more and more often. After I noticed it parked there in the morning one time, I wrote down his plate number and fired up Web Sleuth, one of those online investigative services that tells you everything you need to know about a person for $49.99. I printed out some pertinent data and took the information up to L’s door later that night.
“I’d like to have a word with your Memphis-bred fifty-five-year-old sleepover friend, Boyd, if I may,” I said. “It’s adorable that you two have the same birthday, by the way. That’ll be fun for the eight or nine that he has left.”
L looked stunned for a moment, but she gathered herself, and that’s when she started throwing around the phrase restraining order with conviction and regularity. I also began to realize that forgiveness might not be my only obstacle to getting L back. I also had to contend with Father Time in golf cleats.
While I was contemplating the evil curiosity that was Boyd Bollinger, I heard a high whistle and a pop out in the parking lot. Bruce lumbered over and gave a low woof at the drapes. I immediately grabbed a half-
full can of Pringles that I had been munching on before falling asleep and chucked them across the room. He turned away from the window, stuck his nose in the can, and started hoovering them up but good.
“What was that?”
“What was what?” I said.
“I heard barking.”
“That’s nothing. That’s the TV. Scooby-Doo reruns.”
“Not always. Sometimes he, you know, barks and whatnot.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said you know.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that, too. Those are the two things you always say when you’re lying.”
“I honestly don’t know where you come up with some of this stuff,” I said.
It was at this point that things took a distinctly negative turn. The unsupervised, troublemaking little hot dog and hamburger out in the parking lot decided to spark the entire pack of bottle rockets at once. They whooshed and whistled and rat-a-tat-tatted for a good ten seconds. Let’s just say that Bruce failed to keep his shit together. It sounded like feeding time at the city pound.
“You son of a bitch!”
“No!” I said, though I have no idea why. What on earth was there to say no to? I had the dog. She knew I had the dog. Everything pointed to yes, not no.
“If he’s not back here in ten minutes, you’re going to get a visit from the police. And I have never been more serious in my life.”
I got off the bed and looked at the dog. He had quit barking and returned his attention to the chips. I transmitted, “Hey, man’s best friend. Terrific work. Really.” He looked up, the Pringles can stuck to his
nose, blameless as can be. But he had a glimmer in his eye. I knew it and he knew it. And that glimmer said, “Remember when you left me at the Prince and Pawper Kennel Club for six straight weeks last year while you were bingeing on blackjack eighteen hours a day and sleeping on Dawn’s couch? Remember that? I do.” And I looked right at him and thought, “Yes, I remember leaving you at the Prince and Pawper for six weeks. But I sprang you, didn’t I? You had a pretty good time staying at Dawn and Penny’s after that, if I remember correctly. And I made it up to you by taking you to Myrtle Beach with me. A trip you totally spoiled, I might add.”
He looked at me. Gave me nothing.
“Anyway, this was no time to make a point. Now drop the fucking chips and let’s go.”
I hauled him down the stairs and tiptoed past Maurice the day manager’s office. All four hundred pounds of him were at his desk, gnawing on a Hot Pocket and listening to WFAN on the radio. He looked right at me as I went past, which meant I’d be answering a series of questions later regarding the no-pets policy.
I tossed Bruce into the F-150 as the two perpetrators of my demise looked on smugly. This was simply another case of bad luck for me. In a day and age when parents put webcams in the bathroom in case Junior wants a juice box while he’s taking a crap, I had found the last two unsupervised children in America. Kids who were allowed to play with fireworks, no less. I gave them the finger with my good hand, pulled out of the motel lot, drove up past the golf course, and rumbled through my old neighborhood, where the sight of my truck had gone from being one that inspired waves galore to one people averted their eyes from. It had gotten so uncomfortable that I often parked down by the driving range and walked through the woods to my old backyard on days when I was worried that L’s Cobra batteries had died. I had done that earlier in the day, which is why reasonable doubt was still on the table before the hound blew it. I knew the first thing L had done
was canvass the neighbors and ask if they had seen my truck in the driveway. She would have come up empty there. If a couple of things had broken my way, the search party/mai tai idea could very well have been successful. But you don’t get the breaks you need when you’re on a downslide. You get shit, and then you get more shit, and when you think you’ve maxed out, you get a little more shit on top of it all.
As I took the corner onto Archer, I could see the dreaded champagne Lexus parked where my old basketball hoop used to be, moronic bumper stickers on display. And there in the front yard, looking for all the world like he owned the place, was the Old Rooster himself, Boyd Bollinger. He was chipping plastic golf balls toward where my hammock used to hang. Now that was gone, too. I parked on the street. Walked past a good deal of high-end luggage sitting at the end of the driveway. He broke out a Silver Fox smile as I strode past him. He fancied himself a regular George Clooney, this motherfucker.
I looked at him. The Kentucky Derby mug I’d gotten on a trip to Churchill Downs was at his feet, steaming with tea. Who the hell drank hot tea in the goddamn summertime?
When the dog who blew my cover and I got up to the door, L tossed the screen open and Bruce raced in. Her hair was shorter than I had ever seen it. It made the delicious blue speck on her bottom lip even more pronounced, and her eyes looked like a pair of little moons. Though I had known her for sixteen years, the girl got more breathtaking every time I saw her. It was unsettling.
“First-rate cut. Very stylish,” I said, smiling and nodding at the luggage in the driveway. “You going somewhere?”
She shoved her Cobra CXT 1000 into my chest and slammed the screen door; it was still rattling as I trudged back across the grass.
“Have a good one, Ray,” Boyd chirped.
The geriatric was relishing the situation. I would have clobbered
him except for the cast on my right hand, which was one thing, and the fact that the cops were probably already in the process of figuring out who I was after the incident at the racetrack earlier in the day, which was another. Plus, he was six hundred years old. He’d keel over on his own soon enough.
I took a couple more steps toward the truck as a limousine pulled into the driveway. I turned around and looked at Boyd Bollinger. He was smugly holding a pitching wedge, wearing a lavender V-neck from the Republican Casual line. I walked over to him and gave him a menacing look (I had a solid six inches on him, not to mention being twenty years younger), then picked up the Kentucky Derby mug, dumped the tea out, and tossed it, left-handed, across the driveway. Because I’m a righty, it was a lame, ineffectual toss, and the mug bounced off the pavement and into the bushes without even breaking.
As the limo driver began piling luggage into the car and Old Man River tried to tether down the slightest of smiles, L watched from the window and shook her head in disgust. The neighbors across the street did the same. Jesus. Hadn’t anyone ever been on a losing streak before?