From TODD WALTON
Under The Table
“We were all on this ship in the sixties, our generation, a ship going to discover the New World.” John Lennon
“Things have changed,” says Caroline, thirty-three, tall, slender, beautiful. “Love would be nice, but my window of opportunity is closing fast, so…”
Marjorie, Caroline’s mother, sixty-five and six inches shorter than her lovely daughter, waves for the waiter to bring more coffee. A few pounds heavier than she likes to be, Marjorie is vibrantly healthy, her long brown hair streaked with silver and gray, her green eyes sparkling with life. She wants to say to Caroline, You think I don’t know things have changed? We’re going backwards! The 50’s are here again, the 30’s close behind, then 1900, the Dark Ages, witch-hunts, slavery! But instead she says, “Of course things have changed. Things are always changing. But love is still the reason we’re alive. To love and be loved.”
“Oh, please,” says Caroline, rolling her eyes. “The sixties are over, Mother. Forty years over. Look where love got you”
Marjorie thinks back to a sunny day in 1967 when for the first time in her adult life she wore no bra, her nipples caressed by the thin cotton of her tie-dyed blouse. She was twenty-two, a graduate student at Berkeley, tripping down Telegraph Avenue looking for love—and finding it in the person of Hal, Caroline’s father, playing Frisbee in People’s Park.
“I admire Jeremy,” says Caroline, gazing up at the ceiling as she always does when stretching the truth. “He’s really quite nice and very bright, and he absolutely mints money. He just sold his third start up company for sixty million dollars. He dresses impeccably, knows everything about wine, owns a fabulous house in Hillsborough, a condo in Maui, a vineyard in…”
Marjorie listens to the litany of Jeremy’s assets and thinks I can’t believe this is happening. I’m the mother. I’m supposed to be urging her to marry him because he’s rich and she’s supposed to be saying But Mother, I don’t love him.
“I loved John,” says Caroline, shaking her head. “For five years. Insanely. Look where it got me. Nowhere.”
“Where is it you want to get?” asks Marjorie, smiling painfully as the waiter fills their mugs. “John was an artist. You had marvelous adventures together.”
“I want to be comfortable,” says Caroline, about to cry. “I’m tired of the hassles, the bills I can’t pay, saving myself for some guy who doesn’t exist. If I marry Jeremy it’s carte blanche from here on out. No more confusion. No surprises. A perfectly nice guy with buckets of money. I’ve paid my dues. Time to have babies.”
“You don’t think babies are confusing and surprising?” says Marjorie, her heart aching. “Believe me, honey, babies are, by definition…”
“Only if you’re poor,” says Caroline, squeezing her eyes shut. “Like we were. But Jeremy has millions of dollars. Many millions. Can you spell nannies?”
Marjorie remembers the rallies, the marches, the be-ins, the banners and placards and signs that said FREE LOVE! She used to think Free Love meant Love Without Cost, but now she realizes it was demand: Release Love From Its Shackles. Set Love Free. And in setting love free, set women free.
“Anyway, the point is,” says Caroline, gnawing at her thumbnail, “he needs me to decide before the end of the month, in eleven days, when his fiscal year ends. For his corporation. Because he wants to buy me a car. And to get a deduction he needs to make me an employee, but if we aren’t going to get married I don’t want to put him through the hassle.”
“Wait,” says Marjorie, her head throbbing. “You’re deciding to marry him on the basis of a car?” She thinks of women in Africa being traded for cows.
“Don’t lecture me, please,” says Caroline, folding her arms. “I knew you were going to lecture me.”
“I’m not lecturing,” says Marjorie, rummaging in her purse for aspirin. “I’m asking a question.”
“You think Jeremy is stupid, don’t you?” says Caroline, nodding. “You think he doesn’t have a sense of humor because he didn’t get Alex’s stupid little ironies. And because he didn’t think Young Frankenstein was funny. Right?”
“I have met Jeremy twice,” says Marjorie, waving frantically for the waiter to bring water. “He seemed…remote.”
“Why?” says Caroline, snarling. “Because he’s totally focused on where he wants to go? What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” says Majorie, her eyes filling with tears as they always do when Caroline snarls at her.
“Jeremy isn’t confused,” says Caroline, nodding resolutely. “That’s one of the many things I admire about him. He isn’t looking for himself. That’s all your generation ever did was look for themselves, and you never ended up getting anywhere.”
“Where should we have gotten?” asks Marjorie, the room spinning.
“Somewhere,” says Caroline, raising her hand to call for the bill. “As opposed to nowhere.”
Hal, Caroline’s father, meets Marjorie for drinks and appetizers at the Hyatt on Union Square. Hal is tall and handsome, sixty-seven, with bushy gray hair and pale gray eyes, a restless fellow with big hands and broad shoulders and a roving eye. He downs his first beer in a single gulp and signals the waitress for another.
“We used to eat for two weeks on what it costs to have two beers here,” whispers Marjorie, always uncomfortable in opulent surroundings. “It’s outrageous.”
“We were hippies,” says Hal, making eyes at their waitress. “I make more in a day now than I did in a year back then.” He thinks about his boast for a moment. “We were kids. Ignorant as mud. Miserable. What? You want to go back?”
“Were we miserable?” she asks, smiling at memories of their joyful lovemaking. “I remember being excited most of the time. Happy.”
“We were kids,” he says, dismissing the past with a wave of his hand. “Kids are excited most of the time. What did we know?”
“Speaking of kids,” says Marjorie, taking a deep breath, “has Caroline spoken to you about…”
“I told her to take the car. In his tax bracket it’s the new engagement ring. Definitely a win-win situation. What’s she got to lose? No big deal.”
“I remember my engagement ring being a big deal,” says Marjorie, realizing as she always does at some point during her infrequent meetings with Hal that she still finds him supremely attractive.
Hal downs his second beer and signals for another. “I bought the stupid thing on Telegraph Avenue from a pothead jeweler. Two peace symbols melted together.” He snickers. “We dropped acid before I gave it to you.” He shakes his head. “A miracle we survived all that shit we ingested.”
“I still have it,” she says, blushing. “Reminds me of our innocence.”
“You’re never gonna get married again, are you?” he says, marveling that he stayed with her for a month let alone eleven years, and that despite his constant infidelities she never ceased to love him.
“You’re never gonna stay married, are you?” she replies, recalling a few of his many wives, how alike they all seem to her.
“What are you talking about?” He winks at the waitress as she delivers his beer. “I’ve been with Louise for three years now. Going strong. The thing with Janice was an escape. To get over Gina. Besides, Janice was way too young for me. Ditto Anna.” He sighs. “Oh, and Denise.” He reddens and laughs. “But who’s counting?”
“Going strong with Louise,” says Marjorie, smiling sadly, “but you’re having an affair. I could always tell when you were cheating on me and I apparently can tell when you’re cheating on your current wife.”
“Hardly an affair,” says Hal, raising his hand and making a scribbling motion to call for the check. “Every couple weeks. Besides, it’s acceptable now. Nobody really minds so long as you follow the protocol.”
“There’s a protocol?” says Marjorie, aghast. “Louise doesn’t mind?”
“Louise is very comfortable,” says Hal, nodding emphatically. “She lacks for nothing and has her own…diversions.”
“Oh,” says Marjorie, overcome with sadness. “Well, okay.”
“You don’t approve,” says Hal, winking at the waitress again as she places the bill before him. “But you made love with my best friend and I made love with yours, and we watched each other do it. Remember? So we could move beyond jealousy and guilt and possessiveness. So we could get free of the patriarchal Judeo-Christian bullshit. But we didn’t get free of anything, did we?”
“I don’t know, Hal,” says Marjorie, remembering how thrilled she was to move beyond jealousy and guilt and possessiveness. “I just don’t think she should marry him for a car.”
“It’s not the car,” says Hal, dropping a fifty-dollar-bill on the table and rising to go. “It’s what the car represents.”
Marjorie and Alex are sitting on their two-person sofa in the living room of their little flat on Polk Street, smoking pot and watching the fish in their aquarium. Alex is small and quiet, sixty-two, entirely bald with brilliant blue eyes. He owns a window washing business that employs former drug addicts. In 1968, Alex took three hundred LSD trips and ever since, he claims, has been free of doubt.
“My daughter wants to marry a man for a car,” says Marjorie, overcome with sorrow. “And to be comfortable. I can’t quite grok it.”
“There are many roads to love,” says Alex, getting up to clean a smudge on the aquarium glass. “Maybe she’ll drive there. What kind of car?”
“Either a Jaguar or a Mercedes,” says Marjorie, sighing. “That’s part of the ritual, not knowing what kind of car until the moment he gives it to her, but sort of knowing.”
“But not a BMW?” asks Alex, frowning. “Curious.”
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” says Marjorie, her vision blurred by tears. “Right?”
“It does and it doesn’t,” says Alex, sitting beside her and pretending to be driving a car. “Mileage, repairs, comfort.”
“I’m sixty-five,” says Marjorie, shaking her head. “I’m a high school teacher who smokes pot every night and has a daughter marrying a man for a car. Not really, but sort of.” She frowns at Alex. “How long have we lived together?”
“Ten years,” says Alex, kissing Marjorie’s cheek. “Ten incredible years.”
“And where are we going, Alex?” She gazes forlornly at the darting fish. “Where?”
“To the kitchen for a snack, then to bed.”
“Dreamland,” he says, kissing her again. “Then to work. I to make glass clean, you to impart wisdom to fourteen-year-olds.”
“It’s insane,” says Marjorie, exhausted. “We should move to the country. Grow our own food.”
“Few windows out there,” says Alex, imagining a vast field of tall brown grass.
“We could grow all we need,” says Marjorie, thinking of her one gangly tomato plant on the back stoop. “Couldn’t we?”
“You don’t like it here?” asks Alex, pouting. “San Francisco is Mecca. I love this place, this moment. You.”
“I hate that Caroline would marry a man for a car.”
“It’s not the car,” says Alex, rising to clean another smudge on the aquarium glass. “It’s what the car represents.”
“That’s exactly what Hal said.”
“Hal didn’t mean it the way I mean it, “ says Alex, glaring at a school of Neon Tetra.
“What did Hal mean it meant?”
“Hal meant it meant security and success.”
“And how do you mean it?”
“I mean the car represents the mechanistic plane of reality. She is marrying a machine, not a person. She is marrying a thing that is not intrinsically alive. A system of organization. A file cabinet, if you will, and she will try to fit into one of the files.”
“But I can’t say that to her. I’m her mother. Anything I say is loaded.”
“She knows what she’s doing,” says Alex, torn between chocolate ice cream and a bagel with cream cheese. “We all know what we’re doing, only we aren’t aware we know because we’ve clogged the channels of awareness with fear.”
“So what should we do? Just…go along?”
“Yes,” he says, ice cream gaining the upper hand. “Go along and do the best we can and help each other and love thy neighbor and relish those moments when we are truly…comfortable.”
“What does that mean? Comfortable?”
“Like cats. You know? Turning and turning and turning, changing positions until we get comfortable. And then we stay in that position until we are compelled to move by hunger or curiosity or the need to go to the bathroom. Yes?”
“I don’t know,” says Marjorie, closing her eyes and seeing Caroline climbing into a huge filing cabinet. “I only know that my daughter is about to marry a man for a car. Or what the car represents.”
Alex shrugs. “Well…there’s always the next generation.”
“Wow,” says Marjorie, dumbstruck. “Caroline with children. What a trip.”
Marjorie is having dinner with her mother, Gloria, at Legumbres Organica. Alex is at his Judo class and Gloria’s fourth husband, Bert, who doesn’t like Marjorie’s politics, is at a baseball game. Marjorie is having a tofu tostada and a wheat grass spritzer. Gloria, eighty-four, a spunky aerobics nut, is having a green power shake and a lentil tostada.
“But Mom, you were right there with me during the sixties,” says Marjorie, remembering the first time she got stoned with her mother, how they howled with laughter and wept like babies. “And Caroline was so enlightened and advanced as a child, and now she’s practically a Republican, and I don’t mean a moderate.”
“We all have to rebel,” says Gloria, shrugging. “I drew the line at some things, psychedelics for instance, you went over some lines, stayed behind others. You didn’t draw any lines for Caroline. Maybe she had too many options. Maybe this is her way of drawing her own lines so she can have something to go over. I don’t know. And please be careful about the word Republican. Bert is a Republican and he pays my bills, thank you very much, though in the privacy of the voting booth he knoweth not for whom I vote.”
“Still, Mom, a car? Marrying someone for a car?”
“I did the same thing,” says Gloria, shrugging again. “Exactly.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Marjorie, waving the thought away.
“It’s true, sweetie,” says Gloria, smiling sheepishly. “And you are the fruit of such folly. I was seventeen. We’d been in Los Angeles for two years, refugees from Detroit, and I was desperate to get away from my parents. My mother, contrary to everything she told you, hated my guts and my father was meshuggah. Crazy as a loon. And I was a cutie pie and there were three fellows courting me. Peas in a pod. Herb Morris, Jack Scott, and your father. Herb Morris had a fruit stand, Jack Scott was a carpenter’s apprentice, and your father was a bill collector. They were all dabbling in real estate and they all asked me to marry them, but I said no.” She pauses and lowers her voice. “Then one day your father drove up in a brand new Ford. My heart started pounding. I lost my mind. I ran out of the house, jumped into your father’s arms and said, ‘Yes, yes, yes. I’ll marry you.’”
“Mom,” says Marjorie, deeply shocked. “You never told me that.”
“There are many things I’ve never told you,” says Gloria, sipping her power shake. “Many things best unsaid.”
“Still,” says Marjorie, her voice shaking, “those were hard times.”
“The Dark Ages,” says Gloria, nodding. “When I divorced your father it was considered a revolutionary act.”
“You started the revolution and we carried it on,” says Marjorie, frowning in confusion. “Only here we are back to …”
“It’s a pendulum, or a circle,” says Gloria, laughing gaily. “We come back around, but we’re a little higher up the cone or the pyramid or…I don’t know. We go along and do the best we can.”
“Higher up the cone toward what?” asks Marjorie, never having thought of life as a cone.
“I’m not a mystic,” says Gloria, taking Marjorie’s hand, “but I’m more optimistic than you are. Remember, I lived through Hitler and the Great Depression. You survive times like that you can’t help but have a different view of reality.”
“But what about the sixties?”
“Yes,” says Gloria, sighing wistfully, “Just yesterday I was thinking about that trip we took in the Volkswagen van, you and I and Hal and that wonderful guy Larry with the long hair and the guitar. Ecstasy under the stars of Arizona. Naked without shame. I think maybe it was a glimpse of the future, so we’d know what to look for. A myth to guide us.”
“But we’ve forgotten the myth, and Caroline spits on the myths of the sixties.”
“She’s just drawing lines,” says Gloria, kissing her daughter’s hand. “Don’t worry.”
On a warm September evening, Marjorie and Alex, Hal and Louise, Caroline and Jeremy and a hundred other people are drinking fine wine on the mammoth brick patio of Jeremy’s baronial mansion in Hillsborough to celebrate the impending nuptials of Jeremy and Caroline. Dozens of servers ply the crowd with platters of scrumptious hor d’oeuvres, the air pungent with the scent of roasting lamb—an electrified string quartet playing classical music with a reggae beat. Upon sampling the splendid food and saying hello and congratulations to Jeremy and Caroline, Majorie and Alex are about to sneak away when Jeremy strikes an enormous gong to get everyone’s attention.
Jeremy is tall and fit, thirty-six, his blue eyes clear, his blond hair stylishly wavy, his voice a deep monotone. He smiles at his audience and says, “We just want to thank you for coming tonight. Caroline and I. This is just such an awesome night for us. We’re totally stoked and we’re so glad you can be a part of where we’re going.”
Someone shouts, “Here, here!” and the people raise their glasses and echo, “Here! Here!”
Marjorie, barely in her body, asks Alex, “Are they saying h-e-r-e or h-e-a-r?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he says, putting his arm around her to hold her up. “The origins of the ritual have long been lost.”
Marjorie gazes at her lovely daughter standing beside Jeremy and tries to feel sad or happy or angry, but she feels nothing. Absolutely nothing. Caroline is drunk on champagne, high on cocaine, and waiting impatiently for Jeremy to give her the keys to the mythic car.
“I feel nothing,” says Marjorie, whispering in Alex’s ear. “Take us home.”
“Go beyond nothing,” he says, giving her hand a playful squeeze. “Think of this as theater. Think of your daughter as a brilliant actress playing the role of her lifetime, which she is, set on another planet.”
“This is another planet,” says Marjorie, relaxing in Alex’s embrace. “What happened to earth? Who stole it from us?”
“So anyway,” Jeremy continues, “in honor of our engagement and to seal the deal…”
Silence claims the moment as Jeremy reaches into the pocket of his black leather slacks and brings forth a red leather ring box.
“Oh, yeah!” shouts Caroline, holding out her hand to Jeremy.
“Hope you like it,” says Jeremy, placing the box in her hand. “One of a kind just for you.”
Caroline opens the box. There, on a felt pedestal intended for a ring, are two golden keys to her new car.
“Benz or Jag?” someone shouts. “Jag or Benz!”
Caroline peers at the keys and shrieks, “Benz! Benz! It’s a Benz!”
“Now I do feel something,” says Marjorie, clutching Alex’s hand. “I feel I’m going to be sick.”
The crowd stampedes, some people rushing through the house, some rushing around the house, everyone heading for the behemoth circular drive in front of the baronial mansion where the mythic car awaits. Alex leads Marjorie through the cavernous home, pausing with her under the colossal crystal chandelier in the gargantuan foyer.
“Imagine having to clean all those,” says Alex, gazing up at the several hundred dangling crystals. “No thank you.
Marjorie stops in the colossal front doorway and gazes out at the fabulous scene—dozens of stylishly dressed men and women swarming around the new car like crazed bees around a dazzling flower, the Benz long and sleek and dark turquoise, Caroline’s favorite color.
Jeremy gallantly opens the driver’s door for Caroline and she gives him a peck on the cheek as she climbs in. Now she starts the engine and the people cheer—Hal standing in front of the car, transmogrified by the headlights into a phantom.
“Did you know they made the ovens?” asks Alex, whispering to Marjorie.
“What?” says Marjorie, mystified. “Who?”
“Mercedes-Benz. They built the ovens Hitler used to incinerate the Jews.”
“Oh, why?” says Marjorie, moaning. “What happened to us?”
Now Jeremy appears at Marjorie’s side. “May I speak to you?” he says in his unwavering monotone. “Alone?”
She doesn’t want to go with him, but she does. She follows him down a wide hallway and into his magnificent study, everything huge and made of dark mahogany, the towering bookshelves full of rare old hardbacks. He closes the door and goes to a desk as large as Caroline’s new car. He opens a drawer and brings forth a black leather check register.
“What are you doing?” asks Marjorie, mesmerized by the calm precision of everything Jeremy does.
“What do you think?” he asks, smiling pleasantly.
“I don’t know,” she says, desperate to make meaningful contact with him, “but I feel like I’m in some sort of weird movie.”
“Life can be weird,” says Jeremy, nodding. “Very weird. Caroline says you don’t approve of my giving her a car. She says you think the money could be better spent on something else. So please tell me what you think that is and I’ll write a check for the same amount I spent on the car to your favorite non-profit organization. I want you to approve of the man your daughter is marrying. It’s very important to me.”
“Why?” she asks, baffled by him.
“I like you,” he says, his tone unchanging. “I think you’re beautiful and full of life and I admire you for what you went through, the sixties and all that, yet you still managed to raise a wonderful daughter. That’s a great accomplishment and I’m the beneficiary.”
“Don’t write a check,” says Marjorie, tingling from head to toe. “Just…it doesn’t matter.”
“But it does matter,” he says, frowning. “It matters enormously to me. I’ll explain why in more detail someday, but for now I’d like to write you a check.”
“Just be good to her,” says Marjorie, looking into Jeremy’s eyes. “Don’t let her get too comfortable or she’ll go to sleep and never wake up.”
“I don’t understand,” he says, his frown deepening. “Why not be comfortable?”
“Okay, okay,” she says, closing her eyes to think. “How much was the car?”
“That’s a very special car,” says Jeremy, a faint ring of pride in his monotone. “One of a kind. Hand assembled and signed by two of the most famous artisan assemblers in Germany.” He pauses dramatically. “It cost four hundred and thirty-four thousand dollars.” He shrugs. “From which, totally legally, I actually make money.” He smiles warmly. “Do you know how that works, Marjorie?”
“No,” she says breathlessly. “And I don’t want to know. So…write a check for four hundred and thirty-four thousand dollars. And make it to me.”
“You,” he says, nodding slowly as he writes. “What will you do with it?”
“Buy a farm,” she whispers. “Or maybe open a bookstore. Something. Somewhere.”
“I’m going to send the check back,” she says to Alex as they spoon in bed, he the outside spoon.
“Good idea,” says Alex, yawning. “First thing tomorrow.”
“He’ll respect me more,” she says, unconvincingly. “He wants me to like him. But I don’t. He seems so…empty.”
“Why did you have him write the check to you? Why not Greenpeace or No More Nukes?”
“Because for just a minute I was tired of all the hassles, you know? I wanted to be free of all that shit and just be…comfortable.”
“Send him back the check,” says Alex, his words free of irony. “We’re plenty comfortable.”
“Then we keep going.”
“Slowly but surely,” he says, holding her tight, “we’re evolving.”
“I guess that’s something,” says Marjorie, relaxing in his embrace. “Still, I wish…”
“I wish my daughter had turned out to be a more generous person.”
“There are many roads to freedom,” says Alex, sighing contentedly. “She’s young yet. Maybe she’ll drive there. Maybe she’ll end up more generous than anyone has ever been.”
“I’d love that,” says Marjorie, getting out of bed and floating down the hall to the kitchen. “She used to be. When she was little. Gave everything away. Free as a bird.”
Marjorie has a big drink of water and skips back to the bedroom, renewed.
“Hey, Alex,” she says, climbing into bed. “Next anti-nuke demonstration or anti-war march, let’s go on it. Want to?”
Alex does not reply. He is asleep and dreaming that he and Marjorie are in a turquoise Mercedes. Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez are playing dreamy good jazz on the surround sound stereo. The car isn’t going anywhere, but the seats are very comfortable and the windows are spotlessly clean.