Peter Makuck’s fourth collection of short stories, Wins and Losses, was published in 2016 by Syracuse University Press. An earlier collection, Costly Habits, was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award. He has three times received honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. One of his stories, "Filling The Igloo," was included for The Best of the Southern Review. His poems and stories, essays and reviews have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, Cimmaron Review, Yale Review, and others. He is Distinguished Professor emeritus from East Carolina University where he founded and edited Tar River Poetry from 1978 to 2006.
"That felt good," said Lynne, coming out of the water. She toweled her blond-streaked hair and sat down at a table with Rick and Vivian. The deck of their neighborhood pool overlooked the narrow Tar River. They were drinking premixed gin and tonics under a big blue umbrella. It was four o'clock, the sun still fiery. Owen, Lynne's husband, had just arrived from several emergency cases and was still floating in the pool, his belly above water. Lynne leaned back in her chair, took a deep breath, and watched droplets of water slide down her arms. What Rick was saying finally shifted her focus. "I don't get it," he said. "I mean, how do friends of twenty-two years sell their house, move to Florida, and not say goodbye, leave an address, phone number, anything?" She watched his features harden. He slowly shook his head and looked toward the smooth black river. College students were drifting downstream in kayaks, canoes, and clownish rafts they had thrown together—some kind of fraternity/sorority thing. Beer cans floated in their wake. There was yelling and laughter. Lynne watched two girls in a silver canoe lift T-shirts and flash their boobs. Guys on a barely floating raft yelled, "Wait, come back!"
"See that?" said Rick. "Sorority girls didn't do that when I was in college."
"But you wish they did," Vivian said. "Mr. Perfect. At their age, I suppose you never did anything questionable?"
Rick refilled his plastic glass from the thermos jug. "What's questionable," he said, taking a sip, "is that Scott and Angie Tapper, our friends of twenty-two years, walked out of our lives and never said goodbye. Twenty-two goddamn years!"
Lynne and Owen had moved here from other states, left friends behind, and had themselves been left behind. Lynne recalled her parents' reactions, ages ago, when she announced that she was leaving home for Chicago. She could still see the tear-boosted color of her mother's brown eyes. Her father's cheeks slowly reddened, and he rose from the kitchen table to look out the window. Her sister wouldn't answer Lynne's letters and refused to talk to her for more than a year.
Vivian said, "It hurt me too, but—"
"But what?" Rick's laugh was strangled. "You're hooked on forgiveness. What a masochist!"
Vivian smiled, shaking her head. "Nothing is as it seems. Judging other people is more than just risky."
Lynne sometimes found it hard to believe that Vivian had been a nun before she met Rick. Vivian rarely if ever got churchy, but what was attractive about her and Rick was their openness. They didn't play mind games. No subject was taboo. Vivian was still slim with a model's shapely legs, and not a wrinkle on her face. Her auburn hair alone was enough to inspire envy. Rick had a lanky tennis build, was nicely tanned, but today his face was overly red and glossy with sweat.
Owen climbed out of the pool, walked to the table, then woofed and shook himself like a dog. Lynne always wondered at this need of his to entertain, but everyone laughed.
Vivian said, "What got you called out on a Sunday?"
"I can't answer that," he said, "until I have drink. Free at last! No longer on call!" Lynne poured him a gin and tonic and, from a Ziploc of slices, dropped in a lime. Sitting down, he took a sip. "First case was a golden retriever hit by a car. Beautiful creature. A few bad lacerations, some stitches, but the worst was a broken front leg that needed pins in two places."
"I should think so, if the owners can follow instructions."
"What would you rather work on, cats or dogs?" Owen said he had no favorites. Dogs were socialists, cats were anarchists, and human beings were probably a bit of both. Lynne watched the black water pull a red kayak out of sight under a live oak with dangling boas of Spanish moss. She wondered about the Tappers, why they would do such a thing, deliberately hurt the feelings of old friends.
"My second case was a cat," said Owen. "It was bitten by either a moccasin or diamondback, probably the latter. Sad. A cat's too small to deal with that much toxin."
"Do you see a lot of snake bites?"
"This time of year we do."
Rick cleared his throat. "World is full of snakes, but some don't have rattles to warn you."
"The third case was owner idiocy. This woman comes in with a Yorkie that had eaten some of her Xanax, a woman so out of it she'd probably give her six-year-old a loaded handgun to play with. People like that drive me to drink," he said, finishing his glass with a big grin. Then he looked at Lynne. "My boss here says I'm too critical."
"Yeah, right. You know damned well I'm not your boss."
Rick laughed and clicked his plastic glass against Owen's. "Here's to our bosses."
"Tolerance," Vivian said, tucking a strand of auburn hair behind her ear. "This morning our pastor gave a sermon on why intolerance is good. I almost walked out."
"Pastor Frank," said Rick, "Three chins, weighs a ton. Should have given a sermon on gluttony and used himself as an example."
Yelling came from the river, then a prolonged cheer.
"So what have I been missing?" asked Owen.
Vivian laughed. "Coeds just went by in a canoe and flashed their boobies."
"Man, I'm always missing the good stuff."
Rick said, "We've been talking about the Tappers."
"Ahhh, Scott Tapper. What a talent! Piano, guitar. . . ."
"And don't forget that voice of his," Lynne said.
"Great tenor," said Vivian. "A fucking Judas. I mean, how could somebody who was your best friend, somebody you played tennis with, somebody who moved you with his music—how could he and Angie just up and leave town without even saying goodbye?"
Lynne wished she could say something to lighten Rick's mood. Maybe Owen could joke him out of it. "We didn't know the Tappers," she said, "or any of their friends, except for you. Owen and I were in their house just once for a recital reception. Rachel and Justin took piano and guitar lessons from Scott out of the music store, but we didn't see him after our kids got into sports and left their instruments behind."
They watched a frat boy yell and splash his way back to the raft he had fallen from.
Owen laughed. "Ah, to be young and clueless again."
It was quiet for a minute. A dog barked in the distance.
Vivian said, "The guy who owns The Harmony Shop must miss him. Scott brought in a lot of business."
"Yeah, Mr. Charm . . . Smooth as a suppository."
Vivian shook her head. "Rick, please."
"We didn't even know their house was up for sale. One day I stopped by for a coffee, but nobody answered the doorbell. I peeked in the window, and the house was fucking empty!"
Two blond coeds in a green kayak exchanged splashes with two guys in a blue kayak. One of the girls screamed, threw an empty beer can at the guys, then both boats slipped around the river bend.
Owen said, "Hey, maybe they're in the Witness Protection Program."
Owen said, "Scott might have changed his name. His real name is Tappinga. He probably knows people who know people. Heavily armed with that pinga of his."
Lynne shook her head at Owen, but Rick hadn't been listening anyway and said, "I don't get it. I mean, for years we were in and out of each other's houses. Parties and dinners, recitals and birthdays. We've got him and Angie and their kids in our photo albums. Now I can't stand to look at them."
Owen lifted the jug and topped off Rick's glass, then his own. "How long have they been gone?"
Vivian said it was almost a year.
"No Christmas card?"
"Nothing," said Rick. "And I kept thinking we'd hear from them, that they'd send an address or phone number."
"You could find their phone and address on the Internet," Owen said.
"Too late," said Rick. "If they walked into this pool right now, I'd get up and leave. Take that back. I'd piss on 'em, then leave. Speaking of which . . . ."
Slowly getting up from his chair, Rick wobbled toward the clubhouse restroom.
A pretty girl in a green two-piece dove into the pool. It was humid and very hot. Lynne decided to get wet again. She climbed down the ladder until water was up to her neck. When she sat back down, Vivian apologized, said that Rick's anger about the Tappers occasionally shows. Lynne asked if she had any ideas about why they left town.
Vivian said, "I've got a theory, but . . . ."
Owen raised his glass, "Well, as a famous vet once put it, 'Best let sleeping dogs lie'."
Vivian said, "I agree. What we see of other people's lives is mostly surface. Theories are only theories."
Owen said, "That's not what I mean. Quite a few people knew that ol' Scott Tapper was living up to his name—here a tap, there a tap, everywhere a tap tap. I mean, going into these homes with husbands at work, the guy was tuning more than pianos. That gay pediatrician's wife, for starters. On the other hand, maybe Angie had her own game going."
Vivian said, "I seriously doubt it."
Rick sat down again and leaned back. "What's this about Angie?"
"I said Angie could have been messing around too."
"As payback for Scott's affairs?" Lynne lifted her arms and fluffed out her drying hair.
Rick said, "I really don't think she knew."
"Wait a minute," said Owen. "If we knew, she had to."
Vivian said, "But denial can be pretty powerful." Looking up, she shielded her eyes. "Look at that." Two ospreys circled over the river, barely moving their wings, teetering, balancing on a rising thermal. "I wish I could do that."
Shadows grew toward their table from the clubhouse. With a large green bag slung over her shoulder, a young mother with two children carrying towels, flip-flopped along the other side of the pool toward the high wooden door.
"Scott told me what Angie didn't know wouldn't hurt her. I didn't agree with his messing around, but he had a lot of good qualities too. People aren't just one thing, you know."
Lynne asked Rick if he felt any obligation to tell Angie what he knew.
"No way. She'd have thought I was lying. That would have been the end of our friendship."
"What if it had been Angie cheating? Would you have told Scott?"
Rick sipped his drink. "I don't know. Probably not."
"Interesting," said Owen. "An old college friend of mine died and his wife Ella remarried. Ella's an artist. I was going up to Rochester for a conference, which is where she lives. But she was going to be in New York City for an exhibit. I knew Steve, the new husband, had met him a few times. Anyway, Ella tells me she'd like me to stay at her house, even if she's not there. Steve would love to entertain me, she says. Fine. I've got the key to their house and come in from the conference earlier than expected one night and there's ol' Steve going at it with some blond sweetie on the sofa." Owen paused to clear his throat. "Doggie style, as I recall."
Everyone laughed. Lynne blew out her cheeks and shook her head. After all these years she could still never predict where Owen was going with a story. Rick kept laughing, then said it reminded him of Mr. Pierce, a high school geometry teacher they called "Itchy" because he always had a hand in his pocket scratching himself, more vigorously if looking at Karen Goodwin, a real looker. One spring day two dogs were going at it on the lawn outside the classroom window, and one of the girls, pretending innocence, kept asking Itchy what those dogs were doing. Itchy was giving his pocket hand a real workout, and the guys later wondered if he was more turned on by Karen Goodwin or the doggie show outside the window. To the girl's questions, Itchy kept saying, 'Shhh, shhh, quiet now, what you do is square the hypotenuse . . . get the angle of the dangle . . . .'"
Owen was cackling.
Lynne and Vivian looked at each other: men!
"I guess you had to be there," Rick said.
Vivian said, "You and Owen are still there."
"Back in high school."
Rick said, "Fine by me. Being a kid was probably the happiest time in your life. Being an adult is overrated."
"I like that," said Owen. "Here's to arrested development." They clicked glasses again.
"So, what about the doggie-style guy in Rochester?"
Owen jiggled the ice in his glass, then crunched a cube between his molars. "Well, next morning ol' Steve tells me it was a mistake, an accident, that it wasn't really what it appeared to be. Incredible, right? Fast forward. A year or more later Steve and Ella get divorced. So I'm wishing Ella a Merry Christmas on the phone. A few drinks has me tell her about the time I caught Steve on the sofa with the blond honey. Well, after asking me a few questions about the blond, Ella calls me every name in the friggin' book. She seemed more pissed at me than Steve. But, guess what? She had a right to be mad. I should have told her when it happened. We'd been friends for years. Where was my loyalty? Ella had suspected he was messing around, would have divorced him sooner, and saved herself another year of misery."
Thinking about Ella and Owen, Lynne watched three shirtless guys on a raft of two-by-six planks tied to four giant black inner tubes slide past on the current. They had a boom box throbbing out an old Jackson Browne tune that she and Owen liked right after they met, lyrics about 1969, being twenty-one, and calling the world your own. When the river had taken the students out of sight, Vivian said, "Though I can't prove it, my theory is that Angie became very insecure after her mastectomy."
"She had a mastectomy?" Lynne was surprised.
"She did, and that set off a bunch of things."
Rick said, "The mastectomy was ten years ago. That still doesn't explain why they left town the way they did."
Owen said, "Did they leave anyone else an address or phone number?"
Vivian said, "One of Angie's colleagues at the middle school told me where they had gone."
Rick said, "I've asked myself a dozen times if we couldn't have somehow offended them. The only thing I can think of is that we got out of the habit of going to Scott's jazz gigs."
"Musicians aren't exactly without ego," Owen said. "He could have been miffed."
"What gigs?" Lynne asked.
"He played at the Amnesia Lounge. We used to go all the time>—until I got put on the road and was a corporate nomad most of the week. Scott's trio played on Thursday nights, which was when I usually got home. I'd be really wrung out."
Owen said, "Best I ever heard Scott play was at the Meek girl's memorial service. She was a friend of our daughter Rachel. What a sad thing! And her drunk-ass, drug addict boyfriend survived the wreck and never even went to jail. I'd like to have taken that kid apart."
Rick said, "Well, Scott was pretty shook up too. He told me she was one of the most talented students he ever taught and could have easily had a scholarship to Julliard."
Owen said, "She loved cats. Last time I saw her was at the office. About a week before the car wreck. I spayed her calico."
"I'll never forget that memorial," said Vivian. "It was the 'marche funébre' from a Chopin sonata that Scott played."
"I thought it was Liszt," said Rick.
"No," said Owen, "I'll tell you why. Right after my father died, I was in the car with our daughter Rachel. I had just bought a new Chopin CD with that sonata. When it hit the adagio, Rachel—she was barely seven—Rachel says, 'This music makes you very sad, Daddy, and I know why. It makes you think of Grandpa'."
For a while nobody said anything. Bank swallows swerved after insects along the river. Lynne could still hear those bass chords, dark and relentless. The gin and tonic had her drifting. Across the pool, she watched a teenage couple. They were stretched out side by side on lounge chairs holding hands. Suddenly they got up, went to the edge of the pool, and jumped in still holding hands, something she and Owen used to do.
Owen said, "Vivian, we interrupted that theory of yours."
Vivian looked at her empty glass on the table. Owen picked up the thermos jug. "No, no," she said. "I've had enough. Probably too much. My theory is that Angie was insecure. She said to me once, without being specific, that she knew Scott had his faults and she didn't care. She loved being with him. They had a lot in common besides music. But just imagine having to look at friends or colleagues, or students at the middle school. In a town this size, you had to imagine they knew your husband was cheating on you. Once Angie's daughter had established her ophthalmology practice down in Tampa, she probably gave Scott an ultimatum. This town was full of bad memories for her. I watched her get more and more bitter, heard her say outrageously mean things about people. My theory is she wanted a new start."
Silence held for a minute. Then Owen said, "Fine, but the only way for her to get a new start would be to have Scott's penis surgically removed or get a new husband. Sorry, Rick, I know he's your friend."
"Was my friend."
Owen said, "It's not for nothing they say a dog is man's best friend. Loyal to the end." He raised his glass and clicked with Rick. "Here's to friendship." They drained their glasses. "We've got to finish this jug," he said, and divided the rest. "Rick, I promise that if we ever leave town, we'll have a big party, say goodbye, and we'll give you an address, phone, bank account numbers, the whole nine yards."
"I have another theory," Lynne said. "Some folks just can't bear to say goodbye. Goodbyes are painful, have a finality to them, especially if you love somebody."
Vivian said, "That's very true."
"Owen cried like a baby when our daughter Rachel moved to California."
"You did." Rick said, "Musical chairs." He said it with a lisp, as if he had a hair stuck on his tongue.
Vivian said, "What on earth are you talking about?"
"Remember that game we played as kids at birthday parties?"
"Yeah, a game of elimination."
"I can still hear that Chopin funeral march," said Rick, and hummed a snatch of it. "Jesus. I mean, how do you go from loving people, from being ready to do anything for them, to hating them. I don't get it. Damn it! I'm not going to talk about this shit anymore."
"We better get going," said Vivian. "We need to leash up Wally and take him out for a walk."
Owen said, "If Scott and Angie did it deliberately, for whatever insane reason, they win if you don't let go."
Vivian said, "I'd just add what a great theologian wrote, "'Therefore we must save ourselves with the final form of love, which is forgiveness'."
"Amen," Lynne said.
Rick said, "I don't know about that turn-the-other-cheek stuff—I mean, Christ had to be kidding, right?"
Vivian stood up. "Wrong, and I'm not kidding. We need to get going."
"We'd better get going too," Lynne said. But they didn't. She and Owen watched Rick and Vivian walk through the wooden door, then just sat there looking at the river where bank swallows plunged and swerved.
Owen said, "Rick might not get it, but he needs to get over it. I mean, Christ, everything ends. He's got this ridiculous attachment to something that no longer exists."
"Rick has no brothers or sisters. And he and Vivian have no kids like us."
"Think about it," said Lynne. "I suppose you have no trouble getting over things?"
"I don't think I do."
"Well, think again. It's been over two years since Rachel went out to California, and you can still get into a twit and rant about it after a few drinks."
"Not true," said Owen.
"True. That she rarely calls and hasn't been home kills you."
"I didn't say it didn't."
For several minutes, they looked at the river, Owen finally breaking the heavy silence. "Everybody's been talking theories," he said. "I've got my own, about Vivian's calm and balance. I never said anything about this, but early one morning a few years ago I was on my way to the office and I see ol' Tapper coming out of Rick and Vivian's house."
"They were close friends. So what?"
"Maybe better than friends. Rick's car was gone."
"Don't go there," said Lynne. "Vivian wouldn't. Impossible."
"Nothing's impossible. Just watch the evening news."
"You shouldn't have joked and made a big production about giving Rick an address if we ever moved. He might have thought you were mocking him. You clown around too much."
"It's my way of being serious," Owen said.
A car horn sounded in the distance. A man with a leashed Doberman walked along the riverbank.
"Would you stop wanting me if I had to have a mastectomy?"
"Come on, Lynne. That's no joke."
"What about Ella?"
"What about her?"
"Have you ever messed around?"
He waited a moment. "Not that I know of."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Okay. I messed around once. Just once. And it wasn't with another woman. I was trying to cheer up a despondent nanny goat."
Lynne looked at the river and shook her head. "Jesus."
"Come on," he said, jostling her shoulder, "Lighten up."
The late afternoon quiet was overwhelming. Owen took her hand. They just sat there looking and listening. She could almost feel the current's pull. From a nearby tree came the cry of a jay, the sound sharp as a knife. There were no more kayaks, canoes, or rafts on the river, just a beer can, some leaves, and a branch drifting by on the smooth black water.