WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)

Eric Barnes

Someone Else Entirely

At the bi-monthly meeting of the Chatham Board of Selectmen, third selectman Robert Udler is telling a stray, quiet gathering how he has, just recently, died.

“The home office sent out a letter to all my insurance clients announcing my sudden and unexpected death,” Udler says, smiling and shaking his head. “I didn’t know about it until my wife called to tell me how sorry she was.”

Bulging at the waist, father of three, fifty-one years old.

“I wrote the home office a letter just today informing them that, in fact, I have not died,” Udler says, absently picking bits of skin from his thumb. “For effect, I tossed in a photo of me holding today’s paper.”

The collection of citizens and town officials watch him. I am sitting toward the back of town hall, writing in my notebook, rapidly stringing together sentences and quotes for a news article about Udler’s situation.

I’m not from Chatham. I’m not even from New England. But as a reporter for the local paper, I write stories that townspeople call funny. Endearing. They say my stories show a deeper care for the community and the people who live here.

“And unfortunately for the home office,” Udler is saying, offering up a well-practiced wink, “I’ve bought life insurance aplenty over the years.”

For his part, I write, Udler is taking the mistake with his characteristically keen sense of humor.

• • •

Economists and their Ph.D. students are walking the streets of Chatham, talking to the townspeople, studying local companies, interviewing business leaders and government officials – in all this laying the groundwork for what they hope will be prize-winning academic research on a major economic collapse.

Chatham, a distant Connecticut town of ten thousand people, is in the midst of a massive, sudden recession after the town’s primary employer has gone bankrupt. A defense contractor called Von Riesler, it has been two months since the layoffs started.

Any day now, people think, the federal government will step in to get the company started again. Any day now, people think, some investor or competitor or even one of the forgotten members of the Von Riesler family will step in to save the company.

And so, while they wait, some people walk their children to school for the first time in years. Some gather in loud, joking groups at local diners and bars. Some people mow their lawns with a deep and unprecedented care.

I’ve the time to do things I never could do
, people say.

But, very late at night, other men and women walk the small streets alone, shuffling slowly along the leaf-filled gutters that border the roads, sometimes a constable stopping them as they walk, shining flashlights in their faces, saying little or nothing before nodding and driving away from the distant, fading stare of a man or woman fearing that their life is falling apart.

“This kind of rapid breakdown generally only occurs in times of war, famine or plague,” a Stanford economics professor tells me as I take notes, a group of six strikingly healthy grad students unloading knapsacks, tape recorders and clear plastic clipboards from a Land Rover parked nearby.

“And what if it continues?” I ask the professor. “What if the company isn’t saved and doesn’t ever reopen?”

He rubs his heavy hand along his manicured beard. A graceful student hands him an open plastic bottle of icy glacier water. I watch her hand linger on his shoulder before she turns away. “It’s a question I can’t contemplate,” the professor tells me. He has an accent that suggests he wishes he’d lived in Europe. “It’s a question we’ve as yet lacked the focus to answer.”

• • •

That night, while walking from my car to my apartment above a corner grocery in the neigbhoring town of Esher, I see a copy of that town’s local paper lying wet and wrinkled on the sidewalk. A paper that looks very similar to Chatham’s, it strikes me that in twelve months living here I’ve never bought, read or even touched a copy.

There are messages on my home answering machine thanking me for the stories I’ve written that week.

“Your article on our canned food drive was such a blessing for our work.”

“On behalf of the Chatham Civic Club, we’ll be sending you a certificate of appreciation.”

“Really, Monty, we can’t thank you enough for how you cover this town.”

The young wife of Robert Udler, dead selectman and insurance agent, is waiting for me in my bedroom. A starched pink blouse, faded jeans. “I have an hour,” she whispers, walking towards me. “I’m serving food at a soup kitchen.”

She keeps the blouse on, unbuttoned in part, as she circles above me.

• • •

An hour before a meeting of the town finance committee, I am having sex in the guest house of a top executive from Von Riesler, the defense contractor that has gone bankrupt. She is a forty-year-old engineer who worked at the company for ten years, having led me into her guest house as I ask her questions about the company she’d worked for, mid-answer leaning toward me, hand on my arm, kissing me lightly then harder.

She is using me now, I realize, the way in which she moves me from the bed to the chair, turns me then pulls me up, strips items of clothing from me in an order she’s clearly thought through earlier. But with a purposefulness that has little to do with me or my clothes or my being here.

The day before I had sex with one of the grad students here to assist the Stanford professor, the student leaning forward as I interview her in her motel room. “I’m going to leave him,” she later says of the professor, who, I discern, she’s been seeing secretly for some months. The room’s door is cracked open and she’s raised up on top of me, sheets pulled back, her breathing louder, a vision of betrayal, I guess, though I don’t know if anyone is witnessing the event. “I’m going to leave him.”

A few weeks back, I first had sex with Udler’s wife.

A few weeks back, I first had sex with the paper’s seventeen-year-old intern from the local high school. It doesn’t feel illegal. She drinks vodka tonics before and after, is headed to Princeton in the fall, has visited cities in Eastern Europe I’ve never heard of. But, still, there is the aura of the illicit. Something vaguely dangerous as this teenage girl slides above me.

This has only started since Von Riesler went bankrupt. Some unspoken hope that sex will give relief to their worst fears, losing themselves to the narcotic of sinking into each other, in pushing and near panicked breaths and promise and light and wetness along your back.

And so none of this seems related specifically to me. I think that, as much as anything, I am a reporter, and so I just get around town more than most.

The company executive now slowly pulls me to a chair, sits me up as she melts down to her knees, mouth open slightly as her dark hair falls across my thighs.

I live alone and have no family and know no one outside of work and the people I cover. So if I am being used, I have no reason to care.

• • •

A narrow majority of the members of the newspaper’s telemarketing department believe in the existence of UFOs.

Vera Von Riesler, our head of telemarketing, has trapped me near the sink in the break room. She is a lithe, even grand woman who tends to stand very, very close to people during all forms of otherwise normal interaction.

Vera, more than anyone else, is that person in our office who people dodge, duck and flee from in the halls and meeting rooms.

And I, more than anyone else, am that person she ends up cornering near the coffee machine or the bathroom door.

I have never understood why so many people seem to like me.

“What are the big stories?” Vera is eagerly saying to me, her long hair falling across her face as she leans closer. “Tell me – what kind of exposés are you planning?”

Like so many people, Vera has a vague yet glamorized notion of newspaper reporting.

“No exposés on the horizon,” I say. “We’re working on stories about the new school year and annual town budgets. And of course we’re following the layoffs. The economic fallout.”

I can see I’ve lost her attention, although she remains very interested in me – or, maybe, the idea of me.

The soft and glowing features of a child still echo in her face.

I manage to position myself with a chair between us, yet, in a moment, Vera has gracefully leaned forward on the chair, kneeling on its seat, elbows on its back, so that she is looking up at me from just inches away.

“There are things I know,” she whispers. She bites her lip, she smiles adoringly. “Things that will happen,” she whispers.

Vera is the last local resident of one of Chatham’s oldest families. The rest of the family has, decades earlier, died or moved away. It is Vera’s family that established the first bank in the center of town some hundred and fifty years earlier. Her family that established the first factory, the first law firm, the first insurance agency.

Her family that established the defense contractor during World War I.

Today, Vera is a telemarketer. She lives in a bright orange trailer behind her dead mother’s rotting house. On Sundays she walks the streets of Chatham in a white flowing dress. It is entirely unclear what has become of the family’s once considerable wealth.

“They’ll start happening soon,” Vera says.

“What kinds of things will happen?” I ask Vera.

“Things that are bad,” she whispers.

She is trying not to laugh.

“Horrors, dread and fear,” she whispers.

Her gray eyes are wet. She holds a finger across her mouth, lips still holding that growing, girlish smile.

“Sadness, pain and sorrow,” she says.

Talk like this leaves me mildly light-headed. Because it seems impossible that it can’t be true.
“Evil, wrong and hatred. Fury, rage and grief.”

She goes on another minute. Then she turns and leaves the room.

I rinse my face in the break room sink. I breathe fresh air as the water pours across my lips. I picture Vera’s smile still growing. I’ve never seen her get so bad.
A few weeks back, I first had sex with Vera Von Riesler. Although, whenever I see her later, it’s as if she doesn’t remember.

• • •

I think that I am without a story. Grown up in Boise, in small house suburbs built recently on flat and treeless subdivisions that curl unnaturally within massive squares of low cost land. Paid my way through community college, following jobs at local papers from Idaho to New England.

The people here have lived in these old towns for so long. They have family and religion and positions of importance. Connections to their towns. Family memories of home countries.

But I’m not a brother or a son. Not a local or a visitor.

Not a doubter or a believer.

Not a person who is good or bad.

• • •

Robert Udler’s death is announced once again. The home office sends out unsigned letters to Udler’s hundreds of insurance clients, referring once more to his sad and untimely demise. But this time his clients are officially reassigned to other agents in Connecticut, Udler’s commissions officially taken away from him. Udler calls the New York office again, his contact there apologizing profusely, promising to get this problem solved.

I write a five-paragraph article that attempts to be witty only in its first line. “Like a cat forced to trade in another of its nine lives, Robert Udler has once again declared that he is not dead.”

His wife tells me Udler thinks my stories are funny, breathing it in my ear, blouse still buttoned even when she’s taken off everything else.

• • •

Reports from the TV stations in New Haven and Hartford play black and white footage of people sitting in downtown restaurants in Chatham, cutting quickly to soft focus interviews with mothers and fathers, a plaintive soundtrack bringing continuity to it all.
Von Riesler is still idle. No one, no company or person or agency of the government, has yet stepped in to help.

Some people begin looking for part-time jobs. Some people put their houses up for sale. Some people quietly and in the night pack what they can carry in their cars and silently drive away.

Fewer people cut their lawns.

Fewer people sit together in restaurants or bars.

And many people just walk. Some in pairs. Most alone. Walking. Walking along every block in town.

Everyone simply waiting for the company to be saved.

• • •

I am having sex with China Moore, a thirty-three-year-old member of the Chatham PTA and, with her husband, a recent transplant from the upper west side of New York City. Driven to organize, charming and easy going, a onetime executive vice president for the largest ad agency in North America, China is at once widely celebrated for her positive, community-oriented actions on behalf of Chatham, yet, as an outsider, viewed as a threat to the town’s order and traditions.

That she is a Caucasian Catholic with the first name China only confuses people more.

I meet China at a PTA meeting. I’ve seen her at the meetings for more than a year. Her engineer husband has been laid off from Von Riesler. We’ve only just started having sex.

A year earlier, unsatisfied with the PTA’s plans for a fall fund-raisers relying on the traditional car wash and bake sale, China off-handedly proposes the staging of a Revolutionary War battle on Chatham’s historic Dillard Field – a large park leading down to the bank of the Connecticut River. Complete with cannon, horses, muskets and colonial-era cabins to be hauled in on trucks, the event will, according to China, 1) capitalize on a growing nationwide interest in the Revolutionary War, 2) create a brand awareness for Chatham’s nascent tourism industry, and 3) offer a “marketing connectedness” between the town government and local schools that has been lacking in the PTA’s previous fund-raising efforts. “Multi-dimensional, tightly intertwined with the interests of the town, offering advantages both financial and ephemeral, this is an opportunity I don’t think we can miss,” China concludes before moving her eight-month-old to her left hip and smiling politely at the board.

It’s less that the PTA gives the go-ahead to China than it is that they are unable to stop her from implementing her plans. Ultimately comprised of two thousand men and women from as far away as Maine, Iowa, Florida and France, the soldiers fight four battles over the course of one October weekend, the PTA charging spectators ten dollars a session plus five dollars for guided tours of the soldiers’ camp sites – Visa, MasterCard or Amex preferred.

This fall, she is planning a landing. “Pilgrims,” she tells the PTA board. “Indians. Schooners. A storm. I’ve told the Corps of Engineers that we will have to dredge. The kids will love this.”

She is beautiful. An easy, uncomplicated beauty that suggests certainty and calm.
And she is lying back now, knees bent lightly, hand pulling my head to her chest, moving me into her as she cries quietly, rocking against me, wet and warm and she will come quickly, easily, again and then again. “I shouldn’t do this,” she whisperes, breathing fast. “I shouldn’t do this.” And already I feel her orgasm, body hard then soft and she pushes against me, pushes against me, she’ll have another one soon. “I shouldn’t do this, I shouldn’t do this.”

• • •

That week, twenty-six houses in the town are put up for sale. That week, eleven local businesses file for bankruptcy. Another five just close their doors.

That week, another two teams of grad students arrive to study the collapse.

Each day, engineering firms, machine shops and trucking companies all lay off two, ten or twenty of their employees.

More people wander the streets of the towns, a distant haze hanging from their mouths and eyes.

Chatham – its people, its companies, its government and politicians – had very systematically leveraged every dollar they had against the continued success of Von Riesler.

“We knew it was happening,” says the company executive, in her guest house again. “We live here and raise our children here and we knew the town had become dependent on us.”

I think I can ask her a question she hasn’t answered before. A question no one from the company has answered. “When will someone step in and save the company?”

I am tied to her bed. Just my wrists. She asked and I nodded and she is, actually, talking only intermittently, occupied, then less so, then focused completely again, her attention and her body moving from one part of me to another, her eyes so dark in the dim fall light that comes though the windows of the guest house.

She speaks the words in six parts, over and between her breaths, getting out the words as her mouth is available. “No one will step in,” she says. “This all will only get worse.

• • •

The three ships arrive in full sail, from the East, slicing through the still river with the sun breaking through a dark and ominous sky. Shafts of light striking the crews on their decks, cannon fire erupting like the thunder of the gods, the ships approaching two hundred Native Americans in full garb, all beating drums, circling fires, dancing a wild, growing, so deeply unified dance as they come forth from teepees and ancient huts. It is stirring, majestic and, of course, on schedule.

China wanders casually along the periphery of the landing site, cell phone in one hand, child in the other arm, toddler trailing happily behind her with a walkie-talkie and clipboard.

And yet it is not the helicopters circling the ships that I watch. It is not the film crews hidden in the teepees or the photographers crouching in the tall grass along the river’s edge or the wide-eyed look of wonder on the faces of every child staring out at the scene.

It is the adults, standing above their kids, standing slightly apart from every other adult around them. That’s what I watch. Each person. Each face. Five hundred adults, silent and staring out, still and unmoved. Unable to react. Worn down by the months of collapsing and jobs lost and bill collector calls and foreclosure proceedings starting against their will. Now looking out at the scene not with the bright expectations of pilgrims come hopeful to a new world, but with the weathered, broken gaze of disease-ravaged colonists wanting nothing more than to return home.

Not that I’ll note this in the paper. I’m not sure how I would.

I watch it all from a high ridge set back from the field, the intern and me, fucking as the story unfolds below us, an idea she had to go to a place she knew, and she is quietly breathing, watching, on her belly on a blanket and her chin in her hands, my lips near her ear as we have sex, and as it goes on I watch less of the landing and only stare down her long and young body, pushing, pushing, she is sixteen, she’s told me today, lying to me before because she isn’t sure I’d have done this if I’d known she was sixteen, and she smiled when she told me and I smiled and I said, “Okay, it’s okay,” as she slid off her shirt and lay down on her stomach and lifted the hem of her dress.

• • •

Vera smiles wide, pulls me close. She stares into my eyes as she whispers very loudly, “Is it getting bad yet?”

We are naked in her old trailer.

I wait for some explanation or context. I finally ask between breaths, “What do you mean, Vera?”

Vera leans even closer. “My predictions,” she says. “Of evil. Are they coming true?”

When I stop moving, she starts me again. I say quietly, “I don’t really know.”

She licks my ear, she holds my fingers tight. She whispers, “They will.”

• • •

Three months into the bankruptcy and any thought this will soon end is gone. Instead people sell items from their home. They buy bulk food products at the cheap grocery stores outside of town. They stand silent near the schools, waiting for their children to get out of class, then turn and lead them home.

• • •

You get to an age where you realize that of course everyone is having sex. You want to think it isn’t true, when you’re 14 or 15 and don’t have a girlfriend and even if you have sex it’s quick and almost embarrassing. But you get to a time where you realize everyone is having sex. And you can be one of them too.

• • •

At night, alone, I watch TV.

• • •

She wants away from him, she says, from Udler, the boredom and tedium, and where will she go, she says, “Where will I go?”

She is crying, worse than ever, coming again and as she does the crying gets deeper, eyes closed, “I’m not doing this, I’m not,” as I feel her start again.

She is fifteen, actually, and has never been to Europe and only wants to go to Princeton.

She will leave him, she tells me, and we are in his room this time, I realize, and this is it, she says, she will leave him.

She is going bankrupt, she tells me, and even this guest house isn’t hers anymore and everything she has ever done is tied to the failure of the company.

• • •

Four months after the company collapsed, the town itself files for bankruptcy. Tax collections plummeting, debt obligations unpaid. The mayor sits alone as I interview him in his old office. Answering questions I ask as he stares down at his hands.

Vera Von Riesler is laid off by the paper. Unable to make sales, all of telemarketing is let go one Wednesday morning.

Vera smiles as she stands in the middle of the newsroom and says Good-bye. She tussles my hair as she passes my desk. Flows toward the exit with her dress and scarf and hair alight in a wind she herself creates.

“She’s always creeped me out,” says a reporter near me.

I turn to him and only smile.

The PTA donates its earnings from China’s landing to a local food bank now based in the two-hundred-year-old church in the center of town.

The TV stations in New Haven and Hartford stop covering the happenings in Chatham. “It’s just gotten to be so bad for our ratings,” says a cameraman I talk to near town hall.

Robert Udler’s death is announced a third time. Despite two months of steady calls, follow-up letters and door-to-door visits, Udler has been successful in getting less than half of his clients to return the paperwork necessary to be reassigned to him. But now, every one of those clients who sent in the paperwork receives a short form letter rejecting the request: “Upon further review, we have confirmed that Robert Udler is dead.”

Udler files suit against his home office. But the suit will take time.

His wife finds a job as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant in a neighboring town. Udler’s children quietly transfer from the private school near New Haven to the public high school in Chatham. Udler starts working at a gas station in Hartford. His bankruptcy papers are filed on a Friday, late in the day.

His wife has stopped appearing in my bedroom.

I try to write about the latest development in Udler’s story. But I can’t find a joke to get me started. And so it remains a story unfinished, a tale whose ending I know I’ll never write.

Even when he kills himself a few weeks later, I’m not the one to write the obituary. That’s a job for the intern.

• • •

At night, alone, I am asleep by eight, sleeping through till eight a.m.

The professor and his grad students have quietly left town.

The intern quits working at the paper.

The executive no longer calls me.

China has sex with me, crying, and not once does she come and I know she is done with this.

But Vera still finds me.

It’s unclear how old she is. I sometimes think she’s thirty, sometimes think she’s fifty. When she fucks she talks throughout. About walks she’s taken in the town or old photos of her family hanging all over the trailer walls. Of all the people who decided that they wanted sex with me, Vera is the least interested in who I might really be.

Some people might be hurt by that.

This has never happened to me before. Nothing like it at all.

I will leave Chatham in the morning. Laid off with the rest of the paper’s reporters. The paper shutting down after one hundred and fifty years of operation.

I think I’ll try some town in the South.

Vera is still talking.

Fury, rage and grief.

Sadness, pain and sorrow.

She is beautiful in her way. I watch her from below her. A narcotic, an easy drug.

She says she is worth millions. She says she keeps the money in the bank. She says she wonders all the time when she’ll do something with all that money.

I have very few things to pack.

I’ll remember what this feels like, how Vera looks talking above me, the executive tying me down, China coming and the intern’s breathing and the widow Udler in her blouse, each moment I’ll remember, saved away where I might see it, because of course all this is about to end.