With a Wife and Friend Like These





Another bleak November day: clouds choking off the sun, trees stripped bare. Nothing moving, not even the usual chilling breeze to twitch the branches.

A petrified world, Bert thought. But no rain so far, I should be able to get this over with fast. The car lurched into high gear as he fed it the gas. The speed drove him back against the seat. Bert swung the wheel, relentlessly opening up the slow-slung compact, guiding it into the middle lane of the turnpike. He cursorily glanced at the traffic as he passed it in both directions, not really observing with any consciousness.

Martha, Martha, what are you doing to me, what have I done to you? The numbness in his throat wouldn't go away. He'd had it for a week now. Until that time, he'd never suspected.

Jill MacGregor had been the bearer of the news, stepping into his office, insisting that he break off his work. Why had she told him? A certain loyalty, he supposed. Wasn't like his secretary to be that emotional.

"Yes, I'm sure Bert," Jill had said, with a catch in her voice. The look of hurt and pity on her face and in her eyes convinced Bert it was the truth. It had rocked him, from a standing position to his office chair. He had suddenly felt weak and ill and older.

Bert had gotten the word right after lunch. He had wolfed down the sandwich and cup of coffee that Jill had picked up as usual from the ground-floor cafeteria of the office building. He'd been working on the soap corporation account, planning the national television, radio and publication campaign since early September. It had taken a lot of his time, even most nights. Too much. Otherwise it might never have happened.

With Jill hovering nearby, her words devastating darts punching holes into his psyche, Bert had sunk into a plush office chair, leaning forward as if to guard against a powerful breeze. He pressed his elbows hard against the desktop and braced his feet against the carpeted floor. Knees trembling and mind reeling, he felt if he leaned back fully he might slip down the chair and flow into a puddle under the desk, like water flowing to a low spot.

Son of a bitch, how can it be? Can this be happening to me? He dropped his shaking fingers from his forehead.

"Okay Jill, let's have it all. What else?"

"Please calm down Bert. This isn't easy," she said in a strained voice, her eyes looking like an undertaker's.

"Get on with it," he said wearily. The long, demanding weeks of meetings and brainstorming on the soap program had taken their toll. Bert had been bone-tired and popping tranquilizers for some time now.
He stamped harder on the accelerator. The auto leaped forward, its roar louder but mostly behind the hurtling vehicle.

It was bad enough that Martha was two-timing him but the idea of making it with a colleague--Vince Jamieson, close friend, counselor, drinking buddy. Shallow bastard! Just like me.

The car was streaking now and Bert had to make a couple of quick maneuvers to avoid plodding tractor-trailers. Then he slowed. Not that way, he thought wryly. Why wipe out the innocent.

"It's been going on for a couple of months, Bert," Jill had informed him. "I only found out about it by accident. I was off last week and was headed out to the Strip towards the beaches with one of the office girls. I saw your yellow convertible and thought you and Martha had finally taken a day off to live it up a little."

Jill slumped into a chair near Bert's desk before continuing. "I noticed Martha was driving and was about to pull alongside to wave when I noticed Vince on the passenger side. We drove a ways, us not too far behind but I tried to keep a car or two between us because I didn't want her to see me. Then she turned into Anderson's Motel. Something clicked, Bert."

Jill's voice had a tremor as she said, "I got this awful cold feeling right away."

"Sure, Jill, I'll bet you did." Jill didn't seem to notice his tendency toward sarcasm with her. She went on: how she had dropped her friend at the beach, headed back towards Anderson's. She had parked near the motel, keeping her eye on the empty convertible for a couple of hours until she spotted Vince and Martha emerge from a motel room and leave. A twenty dollar bill had made it easier for a woman housecleaner to remember.

"She and Vince have been visiting the place twice a week for the past month or so. They spent nearly a week there when you had to go to that conference in Chicago." There were tears in her eyes and smudges below them.

"I couldn't tell you right away, Bert. I thought maybe I wouldn't tell you at all. I thought it over for a week and I..."

"What in hell are you crying for?," Bert said bitterly. "How do you think I feel?" His voice was husky and it broke. Jill opened her mouth, reached toward him uncertainly, then walked behind the desk to momentarily touch his arm gently. He shrugged it off and asked her to give him some privacy. She left the office with a stumbling gait, blotting tears with tissue, shoulders shaking.

Now the pieces were fitting together. Bert guided the car from the outside lane, cutting in front of a big Buick full of kids and two beefy parents hauling a house trailer.

He recalled how Vince seemed to be avoiding him lately. Their twice-weekly visits to a corner bar near the office for a drink before heading home had ceased. They hadn't had one since he'd taken over the soap account for the agency.

Somehow Vince could never make it. In fact, Vince hadn't been working late hours for some time. And Bert's rare encounters with him had been abrupt and uncomfortable. Bert had been aware of it but had chalked up the uneasy feelings to a situation that time would eventually right, never really being able to pinpoint the source.

And Martha, she had been acting differently, too. No more complaints about late work, no demands; quieter and cool in her relations with him, making none of her familiar female overtures. He had wondered about it but hadn't really had time to reflect. And she was almost never there during the few times he had tried to contact her at home during the day, and sometimes from work at night.

Bert remembered her telling him she was taking an adult education class and was becoming active in a women's bridge club. Martha, who had dropped out of college after less than a year and who hated any kind of card playing. But at the time he had been relieved. It was good for her to have pursuits, particularly when he was tied up so much with clients. Pursuits, alright. He-she pursuits, or was it she-he?

Martha's face was suddenly before him, as it had been so often since he had found out eight days earlier; wide brown eyes and shining, dark hair that glowed like copper in the sun. Her body pressed against his; her arms insistent, pulling him closer, her warm breath in his ear. "Bert, how I love you, you'll never know." She had said it so many times, kissing him on both cheeks and then on the mouth, again and again. Her scented hair showering his face, her vibrant warmth spreading, encompassing him. But not lately.

Bert shook his head slowly, his mind felt fuzzy and he knew he wasn't thinking clearly. He hadn't been sleeping well and had lost weight--and his soap advertising account--that because Bert had insisted on transferring the business to another ad executive in the agency, just before he resigned. Work suddenly had become unimportant now. He recalled Jill's sad face, her eyes welling with tears, when he said goodbye.

The pills weren't helping to ease his nerves, either. He felt washed out, finished. Without warning, tears erupted and his vision blurred.

Bert spotted the place just past a point where state troopers hung out with radar patrols. He pulled the car over to the side of the highway, cars and trucks speeding by, making his car rock slightly in the gusts their airwaves made. Bert put the hood up and got back inside. Rain had started to pepper the windshield and drum on the roof.

His thoughts revolved around his wife, their past, their sorry present. Bert pondered the only solution he could devise. He had made no effort to forgive her, and had no desire to even try to forgive himself. For him, it was easy to justify her infidelity. He hadn't even bothered to confront her, or to apologize for having taken her for granted. His guilt was obsessive for responsibility for Martha's affair.

No, there was no healing or cleansing on this earth short of retribution. Bert quieted, waiting stonily and morose, Martha's lovely face there before him.

Finally, the flashing light behind him, a car door slamming, a firm voice, almost friendly, "got trouble, sir." The eyes were very blue and piercing, teeth white in a weather-beaten face under the wide-brimmed hat.
It'll work out as planned, he thought as he rubbed his left raincoat sleeve across his eyes, reaching for the glove compartment with his right hand. He swung the gun barrel towards the trooper. One cartridge should do it. Slow, he reminded himself, slower. Give him plenty of time.

Bert saw the executioner's eyes widen, his hand drop quickly to his holster and then swing up the gun. Bert carefully pointed his weapon to the right of the officer's head, aiming well into the sky, and squeezed the trigger of the .22 target pistol. The explosion sounded big in the small car.

The trooper's gun looked huge, probably a .38 Bert guessed, good. Time was incredibly frozen in slow motion. Maybe my eternity will be like this.

Then the second muzzle blast, the flash, a searing numbness from the state's bullet. The eerie, slow-motion sprawl across the narrow, leather auto seat. Goodbye Martha. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...