Hiram McDowell’s second wife died in the summer of 1999 a few weeks after her 45th birthday party, debilitated and demented from breast cancer. She left three children — Ann, Sophie, and Billie — for Hiram to raise. Two years later, Hiram married the widow, Carole Mastriano, whom he had met in Denver. She had two daughters, Tasha and Candice, and he bought a house big enough for two families to live more than comfortably. Only his son Billie was at home at this time; his younger daughter Sophie was at school in the east, and her stepsister Ann, from his first marriage, was in college.
After two months away, Hiram returned to Denver from a board meeting in Chicago at the International College of Surgeons. He entered the kitchen of the contemporary 8,000 square-foot Pueblo Ranch designed by Eiichi Ono, through the side door from the four-car garage. The view of the Rocky Mountains through the panoramic window over the sink made him pause as it always did. He would be climbing again in a few months. He was yearning for the exertion and isolation that always energized him.
His third wife Carole bent over a sweeping granite counter — complete with sink and cooktop — preparing dinner. She did not turn to look at him or speak.
“Hey,” Hiram said, easing his bag through the door.
“You could have called,” she said.
He thought better of responding. Carole practiced clinical psychology and lived in her own caverns of self-imposed hell. He walked the hall to the north wing of the house. He unpacked his bag on his bed and threw dirty clothes in the corner of the room for the maid to take care of in the morning.
Back in the kitchen he put his arms around Carole’s waist from the back. She was flabby now; she’d lost all pretense of trying to exercise. “Good week?” he asked, squeezing her slightly then letting her go.
“Do you want dinner?” Carole asked, still not looking at him.
“Sure,” he said. Although with jet lag, he didn’t know if he was hungry or not.
Carole emptied a package of capellini into boiling water. An electric crock-pot of meat sauce bubbled on an adjacent counter. Always too bland, Hiram thought. She never listened to his advice. And her girls eat anything... a banana-topped-with-peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise diet mentality.
“Something wrong?” he asked. She busied herself, searching for the strainer to drain the pasta.
“Call the children,” she said coolly.
Where was an ounce of kindness? He called into the rec room and the back bedrooms that dinner was ready. Billie, now almost seventeen, came out. “Dad,” he said. He gave his father an enthusiastic, masculine embrace.
“I thought you’d be at school,” Hiram said.
“Career stuff.” Billie grinned sheepishly. That meant he was goofing off somewhere. He was in chronic academic trouble. “Good trip?” Billie asked.
“Nepal, great. Chicago, not good,” Hiram said.
Carole’s girls came out of a back room together—Tasha and Candice, short and not-so-short, blond and dusky brunette. Billie had a quizzical smile looking at the girls. They all went to the dining room.
“What do you want to drink?” Carole asked everyone. She retreated to the kitchen to fill glasses as everyone took seats. Hiram was pissed that Carole’s girls rarely greeted him... or looked at him. I’ll goad them into response.
“How’s school?” he said. Carole entered with the drinks on a tray.
“Tasha made cheerleading squad backup,” Billie volunteered. Impossible to imagine, Hiram thought. Tasha teetered on the cusp of overweight with legs shaped like ice cream cones. How could she bounce and jump? She’d splat any cheerleader she landed on, and she wasn’t in shape enough to support a pyramid. Well, he was exaggerating a little. But still, she was a tragedy with a pretty face and a ballooning body.
“You could say ‘Hello,’“ Hiram said to the girls.
“Leave them alone,” Carole said.
“Just civility,” Hiram said.
“What would you know about civility?” she said.
“How is school?” he asked the girls.
“It’s their break, Hiram,” Carole said. “They haven’t been in school for two weeks.”
Enough of this shit. “Come on Billie,” he said. “Get your sticks; we’ll eat out.” Billie followed him out of the dining room.
In minutes they were on their way.
In the car, he asked Billie about Tasha and Candice, “You messing with them?”
Billie was shy about sex. Hiram enjoyed teasing him.
“Do you like them?”
“They don’t talk to me much.”
“They’re cows. Don’t you think?”
Billie didn’t respond.
“You’re not doing anything with them, are you? Like... you know?”
“It’s not that way, Dad.”
“I’m not at the house much. They like it there better by themselves.”
“Where are you?”
“At school. And with a friend sometimes. He plays guitar.”
The club near the stadium had no sign. The speakeasy-like peephole in the door you opened yourself was never used, and there were no guards or bouncers, or even a maître d’. The name “Tritone” in neon green light script waxed and waned in intensity above the bar. They took a table near the deserted bandstand. Billie laid his drumsticks and brushes that he carried in a black-velvet case on the table.
“You been playing with these guys?” Hiram asked. “I’ve told Ahmad he should let you sit in.”
“I know, Dad. But these guys think they’re big time.”
“So, where you playing?”
“My guitar friend. We’re working on a CD.”
“You got a studio?”
“He’s got a Mac with Garageband. We use his parents’ basement.”
“How are you going to market it?”
“This is a demo. We’re trying to get backing.”
“The two of you?”
“We got an electric bass on some tracks. And his girlfriend plays cello.”
“In basic blues?”
“Early rock and folk. She’s not bad... she’s a music major.”
They ordered from waitress Sheryl. Hiram knew her from previous visits. He didn’t like the size of her nose with dark, deep wells for nostrils. She was a little overweight, but she had breasts the size of two ripe cantaloupes that enriched his day when she leaned over the table to swipe a cloth over the surface.
“You still in school?” Hiram asked her.
“Naw,” she said. “I want to be a masseuse.”
Hiram held her gaze for an instant to see if she might be interested, but she looked away.
As the band set up on the stage, Hiram waved to get the piano player’s attention. Then he held up his Big River harp he took from his side pocket. The piano player flashed a thumbs up.
There were only twenty or so people in the place. It was early.
Hiram finished eating and went to the restroom to clean his teeth with a finger and a paper towel. After the band played an opening number, Hiram approached the bandstand. The piano player stood at the piano and faced the audience. “We have the honor to welcome Dr. McDowell again tonight. A surgeon from the university. He’s always welcome here at Tritone.”
Hiram mounted the bandstand, whispered to the drummer, shook the hands of the guitarist and the amplified acoustic bass player, and stepped to a stand-up microphone. They played “Lonely Avenue,” in E. The bass player sang. Hiram wailed on harp. Although sparse, the applause was enthusiastic, but Hiram didn’t smile. I deserve more than that! After “Stormy Monday” in F, the applause was less than for the first number. The band broke, and all the members thanked Hiram for the set.
Hiram sat down, dipping his harps in a water glass and wiping them down with a paper napkin.
“Did you ask him?” Billie asked.
“He put you off.” Hiram had forgotten to ask. “Maybe later,” he said. “Pissed me off, too. You’re twice as good as any of them.”
Billie swigged on a bottle of beer, disappointment on his face.
“Don’t get down,” Hiram said. “It will come together for you.”
When they got home, Hiram was exhausted from time differences in travel and was asleep in minutes. Carole entered and stood in the dark, barely visible. “Hiram,” she said sharply. “Wake up!” The venom in her voice woke him instantly.
“I know about Rima,” she said. “Everyone knows.”
Shit. Hiram put his hands behind his head, his gaze in the direction of Carole’s silhouette.
“I won’t have it, Hiram. It’s demeaning.”
Hiram wasn’t alert yet. “I don’t get it.”
“You won’t deny it?”
“You’re living with this woman.”
“How do you figure? I live here.”
Hiram let silence isolate them from each other. He finally said, “Look Carole. I’ve never promised fidelity.”
“I’ve accepted your affairs. But I can’t tolerate living with another woman. And a woman of color too.”
Hiram angered. Carole’s sense of possession irritated him. He was who he was. She’d always known that. She had no right to be indignant.
“I love you,” he said, straining for sincerity. It was a marriage of convenience, but he did think he loved her at one point before the marriage.
“Stop it,” she said.
“Don’t degrade me.”
He slipped down in the bed and pulled the covers over him. “I’ve never even tried to degrade you.” I don’t care enough at this point.
“You love her? Marry her.”
“She’s a comfort to me when I’m away.”
“You admit it? And you won’t give her up?”
“It’s halfway around the world. What difference does it make?”
“I’m your wife!”
“Fine. But I’m not changing.”
Carole gasped. Is she crying? He couldn’t tell for sure.
“We’ll go on,” he said. “But you need to change your attitude. It’s best for both of us. And for the kids.”
“And I keep taking care of Billie?”
“If you don’t want to, I’ll figure something out.”
“I don’t know if I can face the world thinking people know.”
“C’est la vie,” he said softly.
Carole hissed. “I’m considering divorce, Hiram.”
Hiram turned on his side away from her.
“Did you hear me?”
“Your choice,” he said.