The following is among the 16 essays, personal reflections and short stories from the recent collection, Outer Voices Inner Lives.
By Michael Craft
Amateur night—that’s what they called it back in college, back when he was learning to drink. New Year’s Eve—the night of resolutions and fresh beginnings. Now, though, in the last year of his fifties, there would be far less drinking, tepid interest in resolutions, and no chance whatever that he would be awake for the ritual flipping of the calendar.
Marson Miles, AIA, an architect at the height of his modestly esteemed career, stood in his dressing room, his sanctuary, in the house he had designed but hated. Were it not for his wife, their home would reflect the clean, disciplined aesthetic that had inspired his design of the local performing-arts complex. Questman Center had wowed critics and public alike at its dedication the prior spring and had been featured as a cover story in the autumn issue of ArchitecAmerica, the first such coup to be scored during the thirty-year practice of Miles & Norris LLP.
“Yes, Precious?” He turned from the framed magazine cover, which was not permitted to be displayed in the public areas of the house, and offered a feeble smile to his wife, who had banished the hard-won trophy to his closet.
“Zip me,” she said with a clumsy pirouette, showing him her back, from which sagged the glittery flaps of a too-tight cocktail dress.
“Yes, Precious.” He called her Precious; friends called her Prue; her parents had called her Prucilla. He zipped her, lamenting her choice of couture, which might have looked comely on a woman half her age—a woman old enough to be their daughter. But there were no children. They had tried, at first, but the lack of offspring had been met with little more than a mutual shrug, so they gave up. And in time, without rancor, without even much discussion, they had fallen into their arrangement of separate beds—in separate bedrooms.
His suite was a tranquil island of minimalism, with spare, contemporary furnishings and a subdued, neutral palette, while her suite wallowed in a florid outpouring of the posh Tudor aesthetic that enshrouded the mini-mansion she had badgered him into building for her. One day during the construction phase, in the offices of Miles & Norris, he had glanced over the floor plans, shaking his head. “It’s a Disney monstrosity, replete with turrets,” he said to Ted Norris, who was not only Marson’s business partner, but also Prucilla’s brother. “All that’s missing is a drawbridge and a moat.”
Tonight in Marson’s closet, Prucilla eyed her husband askance. “You’re wearing that?”
“I think so, yes.” For their New Year’s Eve dinner with Ted and Peg Norris, Marson had dressed in classic, understated good taste—black cashmere blazer, charcoal flannel slacks, white spread-collar shirt, and the tie. Of the hundreds of neckties arranged by color and pattern, hung from carousel hooks on both sides of a full-length mirror, his trusty old Armani provided the finishing touch for most special occasions. Silvery gray damask, with a subtle pattern of jaunty geometrics, it was both dressy and sporty, coordinating with almost anything. He couldn’t recall exactly when he had bought it, at least twenty years ago, but it had cost some two hundred dollars, even then. A shameless extravagance, to be sure—but oh, the silk, the hand, the way it tied—this is what they meant when they spoke of investment dressing.
She watched with a snarky frown as he stood before the mirror, looping and sliding the sinuous tails of silk, which began to form the distinctive V-shaped Windsor knot beneath his throat. She said, “If you insist on wearing that old thing, can’t you at least have it cleaned?”
“It’s clean, Precious. I take good care of my things. Besides, you can’t dry-clean a necktie.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her. “Have you ever tried it?”
“I have.” He returned his attention to the mirror, explaining, “They come back clean, but the body or the sizing or whatever—it’s shot. They never tie right again. No, the only thing to do with a soiled necktie is to throw it out.” Marson gave a final tug, pinched the knot with a perfect dimple, and watched as the tip of the Armani dropped precisely over his belt buckle. He spun on his heel to face her and raised both palms, intoning, “Tuh-dah!”
She mimicked his gesture, then scowled as she tossed her palms toward him. “Don’t forget,” she said, marching out of the closet and into the hall, “we’re five tonight.”
“Don’t remind me.” He followed. “I’m not sure what to think of your nephew’s arrival.”
She halted under a velvet-swagged iron chandelier and turned. “You hired him.”
“The job offer was your brother’s idea. Things are picking up, and we could use the help, so I went along with it.”
“See? Everything’s hunky-dory.” Her tone turned menacing: “So what’s the problem?”
He shrugged. “It’s just that I hardly know Brody. How old was he—like fourteen?” The Brody in question was the son of Inez Norris, older sister of both Marson’s wife, née Prucilla Norris, and Marson’s business partner, Ted Norris. Something of a black sheep, Inez had followed her hippie leanings to California and, even now, remained estranged from the family, although she had returned for Marson and Prucilla’s wedding thirty-five years ago, single and pregnant—with Brody. Marson’s only other, postnatal, sighting of Brody had been fourteen years later, when Ted married Peg.
Recalling this, Marson realized that Ted’s wedding, his second, had been the occasion for which Marson had bought his pet tie, the Armani. He had stood as best man. And at the reception, he’d met Brody.
“He was fourteen,” Marson said to Prucilla, astonished by the passage of time. “And now he’s an architect . . . and he’s coming to work for me . . . and we’ve barely met.”
She leaned close, speaking low. “You’ll meet him tonight. Think of it as a family reunion.” Her breath smelled of cucumber as she fingered his tie. “Happy New Year, Marson.”
A drop of something hot and acidic slid to the pit of his stomach.
A star-pierced sky arched over the frigid night. There’d been a dusting of snow for Christmas, but it was gone now, and the dry, thin air felt clean and invigorating to Marson as he crossed the restaurant parking lot with Prucilla. He hadn’t bothered with a topcoat; she huddled into a black mink cape while pecking across the asphalt, sputtering puffs of steam, churning her arms like the pistons of an old locomotive.
As they entered the restaurant lobby on the stroke of eight (Marson was nothing if not punctual), diners from the early-bird seating doddered out, while those who would be reveling at midnight were still at home dressing, drinking, or both. The hostess looked up from her computer and stepped over to greet them. “Don’t you look special tonight. Happy New Year.”
“Thank you, Connie,” said Prucilla, pivoting her shoulders so Connie could remove the fur.
“Same to you, Connie,” said Marson. “Have the Norrises arrived?”
“About two minutes ago.” Connie draped the mink over one arm; with the other, she gestured toward the far end of the dining room. “You’ve got the prime booth tonight, number twenty-two. You folks enjoy.” And with a bob of her head, she hustled the fur away.
Marson took Prucilla’s arm to guide her past the bar and through the crowded room, but she pulled it back. Though they had often dined here and always liked it, New Year’s could be an ordeal. Booked to capacity, the room was not only noisier than usual, but decorated with a cloud of gold and silver balloons that floated about the ceiling, trailing Mylar streamers that swayed at eye level. And there would be a special menu—overblown, overpriced.
Prucilla gave a demure wave as they plodded through the crowd. From the side of her mouth, she told Marson, “I don’t know what Ted sees in Peg. Talk about mousy.”
“Now, now—she always speaks kindly of you,” he lied.
Booth twenty-two was horseshoe-shaped, with a round table, surveying the entire room from the far corner, backed by mirrored walls. The combined effect of the mirrors and the fluttering Mylar made Marson feel unsure on his feet—and he hadn’t had a drink yet. Brody had not arrived, but Ted and Peg were seated together at the back of the horseshoe, watching and smiling. As their friends drew near, they began to inch toward the ends of the booth, sliding and squeaking on the leatherette, preparing to stand.
With a laugh, Marson waved them down. “Stay put—it’s ‘just us.’” Greeted with cheery handshakes and air-kisses, the new arrivals settled in at the ends of the horseshoe, Marson next to Ted, with Prucilla next to Peg. It was a tight fit. Marson wondered if Brody was not joining them after all—or if he was, where he would sit.
Prucilla was telling Peg, “Love your little frock …”
Marson asked Ted, “Did, uh, Brody’s flight get in okay?”
Ted nodded. “Last night. He did some exploring today. He’ll need a place to live—hell, he’s starting a whole new life. He’ll be here soon.” Ted flashed Marson a quiet smile that transcended four decades. Their wives dished the dirt.
A round of drinks arrived. They had known each other so long, Ted had already placed the order: bourbon for himself, a dry gin martini for Marson, chardonnay for Peg, and a champagne cocktail for Prucilla. They were in the middle of a generic toast, something about “us” and “the future” and “new beginnings,” when Marson’s eye drifted to the mirror behind Ted, in which he saw Connie approaching with a chair hoisted overhead, leading someone to the table. Before Marson could turn and stand to greet their guest, Connie had planted the chair in the opening of the horseshoe and—bang—there sat Brody.
Amid the clatter of arranging a new place setting and ordering the fifth drink, amid the welcomes and the musings about the passing of years, Marson marveled at the transformation of the gangly fourteen-year-old he had met so long ago. Now in his mid-thirties, Brody Norris had flowered into an intelligent and affable young man who also happened to be an architect of considerable promise—and jaw-droppingly handsome. Peg’s jaw did in fact drop as she hung on his every word, while Prucilla listened with a look of forced enthusiasm, as if miffed that this had sprung from the loins of her sister non grata.
As for Marson, his singular reaction to Brody’s beauty—which was indeed the right word—was the conspicuous resemblance to Ted Norris in his earlier years. That tousled shock of sandy-blond hair … the crooked grin … those arresting green eyes. With Brody to the right and Ted to the left, Marson glanced back and forth, seeing two men, nephew and uncle, who looked more like twin brothers at different ages. Yes, there were some knockout genes in the Norris family. To Prucilla’s misfortune, though, their transmission had been restricted to the Y chromosomes.
Brody wagged his hands in a halting gesture. “Before we say another word”—the chitchat subsided—”I just need to tell Marson that I could not have been more impressed with Questman Center. Sure, I’d seen the piece in ArchitecAmerica, but the photos didn’t begin to capture what I saw this afternoon. I took the tour—”
Marson interrupted, “Thanks, Brody, but—”
“I took the tour,” Brody continued, resting his fingertips on the sleeve of Marson’s blazer, “and I couldn’t help thinking, My God, this is right up there with the best of Mies, Corbu, Neutra—you name it. Sure, the term has gone threadbare, but Questman truly is iconic.”
“Agreed,” said Ted, raising his glass. “Bravo, Marson.”
Marson reminded his partner, “Your name’s on it, too. We’re a team.”
Ted told his nephew, “Don’t listen to him. Marson’s the designer. I mind the business and the engineering.”
Marson laughed. “I need somebody to make sure the roof stays up.”
Brody touched Marson’s arm again. “Well, I was totally blown away, and so were the docents this afternoon when I told them I was coming to work for you.”
“Frog legs!” said Prucilla.
All heads turned to her.
She waved the evening’s menu card. “It’s a prix fixe, and the appetizer is frog legs.”
“Ish,” said Peg. Prucilla was right—Peg was mousy. She spoke little, so when she did, people took note.
“Well, I think that sounds rather festive,” said Ted, nudging his wife.
“I’ve never had them,” said Marson, “but it’s New Year’s, and there’s a first time for everything.”
By the time the appetizer arrived, the table was on its second round of drinks, and any squeamishness Marson might have felt about the frogs was quelled by the gin.
“Tastes like chicken,” said Peg.
“They say the same thing about rattlesnake,” said Prucilla, chowing down.
Ted brought the focus back to Brody: “So … when did things fall apart with Lloyd?”
Brody set a bone on the plate and dabbed his lips with a napkin. “It started a year ago. I knew something was up when he needed to be traveling over Christmas. I mean, his kids are my age, and they’d always come to California, but last year—supposedly—he needed to visit them. Turns out he went to Vegas, to meet this guy we’d done a beach house for in Malibu. Five years younger than me, lots of bucks—catnip for Lloyd. It took six months to get everything out in the open, then another six to get it settled. But it’s over.”
Marson asked quietly, “You made out all right?”
Brody nodded. “We were married in California. Now we’re divorced. And the firm is closed. Fifty-fifty.”
“That’s tough,” said Marson, “but I’m glad you had those protections in place.”
Brody smiled. “And I’m glad I landed here.”
“How nice,” said Prucilla, licking her fingers. “Everybody’s glad and happy.” The sauce was Asian, sweet, and sticky.
Ted said, “Amazing, isn’t it, how times have changed? The whole ‘gay issue’ is so mainstream now.”
“How modern,” said Prucilla. “Everybody’s so open and evolved.”
Ted turned to Marson. “Remember, back in college? The topic was sort of … radical.”
Marson’s brows arched. “Was it ever.”
With a quizzical look, Brody asked, “You guys went to college together?”
“Sure,” said Ted. “Architecture school—that’s how we met.”
Marson added, “We were roommates.”
The table went silent for a moment.
Prucilla cleared her throat, then leaned to tell Peg in a stage whisper, “It makes one wonder if there might have been some antics in the dorm.”
Peg’s eyes bugged.
Brody laughed. “Nonsense, Aunt Prue. I have special powers—that gaydar thing? And I can tell you with absolute certainty that Uncle Ted is utterly, incorrigibly heterosexual.”
Ted lifted his hands in surrender. “Guilty as charged.”
“I’ll tell the world,” said Peg, nuzzling him.
And at that moment, under the table, a table that squeezed five people into the space for four, Brody’s knee drifted a microscopic distance toward Marson’s, and as the woolen fibers of their slacks approached each other in the dry air of a January’s eve, a spark—an actual spark of static electricity—leapt from one leg to the other with a sharp, audible snap that shot through Marson’s thigh and made him gasp.
“Gosh, sorry,” said Brody, moving his knee. Then he eased it back again, letting it rest against Marson’s.
Breathless, Marson dared not let his eyes meet anyone else’s. Staring down at the plate of stripped-clean frog bones—long, thin, and delicate, they didn’t resemble chicken at all—he felt suddenly nauseated by the thought of having eaten this swamp thing, and he saw the array of bones circling the table, circling the entire dining room, and he wondered what they did with the rest of the frogs, and he envisioned a dumpster behind the restaurant brimming with these bloated, legless swamp things, and he wasn’t feeling well at all, and he regretted that second martini, and he was very concerned about that egg-and-spinach thing for lunch, and—
“Marson!” said Prucilla, aghast.
“You’re white as a sheet. What’s wrong with you?” Her tone was more scolding than concerned.
Brody touched Marson’s hand and looked into his eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Um”—Marson blotted his forehead, then his lips, and set the napkin on the banquette—”sorry. I just need a bit of air. Excuse me, please.”
Brody got up and moved his chair aside.
Marson edged out of the booth, composed himself, and mustered a nonchalant air as he made his way across the dining room toward the lobby. Passing by Connie, he explained, “Forgot something in the car,” and went out the front door.
In the parking lot, he found a quiet corner, leaned over a bush to brace one palm against the wall, and took a long, deep breath of the night air. For a moment he thought the nausea might pass. But he was wrong. And dangling beneath him in the cold breeze, directly in the path of the gushing, greasy frog bile, was his favorite Armani necktie.
New Year’s morning, the house was quiet, save for the lullaby rumble of the furnace.
Marson awoke with a clear head and a calm stomach—the silver lining to his purge the prior night. Having had no appetite for dinner, he was now hungry, so he decided to spiff up for a nice brunch somewhere. He showered and shaved, made a few phone calls, and dressed for the day in velvety corduroys, a comfy lambswool V-neck, and smart Italian loafers.
With the folded, sullied necktie in hand, he went down to the kitchen. Its walls had the texture of rough-hewn stone (faux, of course), like a dungeon from some cheesy production of The Pit and the Pendulum. But this morning the room seemed bright to him, bright with the prospect of change.
Prucilla sat with a cup of coffee in a shaft of sunlight at the breakfast table, reading a newspaper, nibbling toast. She wore a tentlike flannel housecoat and a spongy pink turban. Facing the window, she made no acknowledgment that Marson had entered the room, despite the distinct clack of his loafers on the limestone floor.
He stepped to the sink, opened the door to the trash bin, and tossed in the Armani, where it settled among the coffee grounds. Closing the door, he asked, “Why did you marry me?”
Her head made the slightest turn in his direction. Her lips sputtered with a chortle that sent toast crumbs darting through the beam of sunlight. Then her gaze returned to the paper.
He moved to the table and sat across from her. His voice was soft but sure: “It was a serious question. It deserves an answer.”
She set down the paper, sipped her coffee, and paused in thought, eyes adrift. “What’s the stock answer—’love’? Let’s just say I married you for the same reasons you married me.”
“I doubt that,” he told her. “You see, I married you because I was deeply—and impossibly—in love with your brother.”
For the first time that morning, she looked at him.
He continued, “I married you to keep Ted in my life. The business came later.”
Her features pinched, then relaxed. “Feel better? Get it off your chest?”
“Prucilla”—he never called her that—”I want out.”
She laughed. “Want out? I’ll suck you dry and spit you out.”
He looked about, whirled his hands. “It’s all just . . . stuff. You can have it.”
“Then it’s true what they say: there’s no fool like an old fool.”
“Maybe.” He knew it was an odd moment to be smiling. Patting a pocket for his keys, he said, “I need to be going.”
“Brunch. At the club.”
“How dreary. Why would you go to New Year’s brunch solo?”
He paused. “I’m not.”
And beneath the table, Marson relived the sense memory of Brody’s knee touching his.
And he felt the spark.
Michael Craft is the author of more than a dozen published novels and two produced plays. Three of his Mark Manning mystery novels have been honored as national finalists for Lambda Literary Awards. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and lives in Rancho Mirage, California. Visit the author’s website at www.michaelcraft.com. ‘Frog Legs’ has been previously published in Chelsea Station Magazine, May 2014, Chelsea Station Editions, and Badlands Literary Journal, Fall 2014, California State University, San Bernardino, Palm Desert Campus.
Copyright Michael Craft, re-printed with permission.