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Authors: Polly Dugan

The Sweetheart Deal

BOOK: The Sweetheart Deal
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For Patrick

 

 

 

 

Who's gonna take the place of me?

—U2, “Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”

The less we say about it the better

Make it up as we go along

—Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”

And, by the way, I'm gonna love you anyway

—National Flower, “Riot”

I
know Garrett never thought I was serious when I told him, If I die, I need you to marry Audrey. Make my wife your bride—she's meant to be a bride, not my widow. And I know she didn't think I was either, but I'd never been more serious about a thing in my life. I was a firefighter; I risked my life every day. Surely I couldn't be the only guy in the department who thought about such a thing. And then, after 9/11, I knew asking him had been the right decision, and I felt even better about it. Of course I did. Garrett is my best friend. We met in 1983, when we were fourteen, and it's as true now as it was then. I had other friends, good friends. I had Gallagher at the firehouse—easily worth ten men—but Garrett is like a brother to me. It's as simple as that.

The three of us had joked about it for years. How many times did Audrey shout to me, when Garrett called, “Leo, it's my second husband! You going to pick up?” Then she'd say to him, “Bye, sweetie, here he is,” and he and I would talk. My love, my everything, the mother of my sons—of course I wanted a plan in place. Of course she didn't expect me to die. It was all in good fun.

I didn't think about them being intimate. I couldn't. I only thought that if Audrey and the boys were left on their own, if I had anything to say about it, Garrett was the one person I'd choose to take care of them. I wouldn't be around to know about any of the rest, which they would figure out.

You have these precious, priceless responsibilities in life, the sources of pride you've created, earned, acquired: your children, money and property and assets, pets, even—treasures that demand you nurture and protect them properly—and in the event that you no longer can, you leave them in the hands of someone who can't possibly replace you. Assigning the job of the best care and love only you can give to someone who isn't you—that's the stuff of madness. When Audrey and I finally bit the bullet and wrote up our wills, everyone we considered seemed newly and certainly too flawed, crazy and unworthy to care for the boys. The list of family and friends we had to choose from got very short very quickly, but we conceded to name her conservative brother and sister-in-law, then my sister and brother-in-law as backup, all of them on the other side of the country. When Christopher was still a baby, we wrote up specific instructions and extracted promises, requiring attendance to Catholic school and exposure to open (progressive) political minds. Of course they'd agreed. If they'd ever be forced into the roles of guardians, we would never know if they honored our wishes or not.

  

Audrey and I had been married for six years when Garrett spent Y2K with us in Portland. It was the first time we'd seen him since our wedding. He'd been my best man.

“I bought my ticket and I'm flying out,” he told me in November. He was in graduate school again, his second stint. “It's about time I come to Portland, and if it's all over with the millennium, I'm going out with you two.”

On New Year's Eve, we got a sitter and had an early dinner downtown in time to be home and drink with the New York countdown. All was relief when the world didn't end. Audrey was pregnant with Andrew and begged off to bed at ten-thirty, kissing us both, and Garrett and I stayed up. Christopher and Brian were still so little and would be awake early.

So as 1999 shed its skin and became 2000, we sat in the backyard smoking cigars by the fire pit, and I got drunk and sentimental. It was a dry, clear, cold night, a rare thing during Portland's December. I was overcome the way people are. On such a night, with such a friend.

Garrett and his women. That's what we'd been talking about. You could set your calendar by them. Anywhere from eighteen to twenty months—or less, but never for two years—he'd be with someone, and then he would end it. After a period of solitude, like a cleansing fast, he'd be on the market again. I could tell the ages of some of his lovers from their names alone. He'd been with an Acacia, two Zoës, a Piper. During that visit he was with a Nichole.

“And she's a student?” I said.

“She's a graduate student,” Garrett said. “She's not
my
graduate student. She's a big girl. Jesus, Leo, I'm not going to let my dick get me arrested, or cost me my job.”

“Why don't you find a nice Mavis, or an Edith?” I said. “What about an Opal?”

“What's going on here?” His voice got flat. “What's with the shitty judgment? I'm telling you about this woman, Nichole, who I'm very happy with, and you're being kind of a prick.”

I had to tread lighter. The year and a half of what Garrett considered happiness, replaced by another of the same length, but with a different woman, wasn't what he would call a problem.

So while we argued about his future with Nichole, I pushed.

“You know they want to marry you, right?” I said. “After a few months in, they imagine themselves years down the road with you, living in the brownstone, with a library full of books from floor to ceiling, maybe a basset hound—no, a terrier. You, smoking a pipe, wearing your glasses and sweater vest.”

“What the fuck?” he said. “I would never wear a sweater vest or smoke a pipe.”

“Not now.” I giggled. “Later. In the happily-ever-after. Maybe even the occasional cardigan.”

“Fuck you,” he said. “You're tittering. You titterer.”

I sprayed my drink from my mouth and folded into a hysterical pile until I managed to speak again. “Titterer!” I said. “You're the titterer!” We often reduced ourselves to juvenile behavior when we were together, even then, when we were successful adult men. There's no denying that.

“I'll be right back,” I said, and stumbled inside for paper, a pen, and a flashlight. At the kitchen counter, I scribbled on the sheet of paper. When I got outside, I shoved the paper and pen at him. “I need a favor. Sign this.”

“Sign what? I can't sign something in the dark,” he said. “Man, you're wasted.”

I flashed the light on the page. “This,” I said. “It says, ‘I, Garrett Reese, in the event of the death of Leo McGeary, promise to marry Audrey McGeary.' All you have to do is sign it.”

“What are you talking about? You're off your rocker,” he laughed. “You're loaded.”

“Just sign it.” I shoved the paper at him again. I poked his arm with the pen. “I love that woman, and if I die on her, I need you to take care of her, to take care of my family. You're the only person I'd trust to do that.”

Garrett took a puff off his cigar. “You stupid fuck.” He was still laughing. “
I
have a life. And you're not going to die, but if you do, what if
I'm
married? I love your wife, but not
like that
. I'm not your plan B man, I'm my own plan A—Jesus. You call this a
favor?

“I don't sit on my ass for a living,” I said. “I need some insurance and I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for your wedding. You want to keep discussing that probability? And you would figure out how to love her
like that
. Pretty easily, I'd expect. Let's not talk about it.

“If you're married when I'm dead, I can't hold you to a promise that you can't keep. There'll only be so much I can do at that point.”

He took the paper and rested it on his leg in the dark.

“Move the goddamn light so I can see.” He scanned the words I'd scrawled. “You're smashed,” he said. “I'm with Nichole,
remember?
You're going to have to find someone else to give this to.”

“Oh, for Christ's sake,” I said. “I'm not going to die tomorrow. Nichole's got nothing to worry about. Will you sign it already and I'll bring us more drinks.”

“I'm only doing this to get you off my fucking back. It's the new millennium for God's sake, and you're being morbid as hell. Refill me.” He signed the paper and handed it back. “It's your word against mine, dead man. That doesn't even look like my signature.”

“Thank you,” I said. I took the paper. “I really mean it. That's a load off. Hand me your glass. Stand up. Give me a hug.”

He did, and our embrace manifested all the years of our friendship.

“I love you, brother,” I said. “I'll be right back.”

“Love you too, man,” he said.

Leo Thomas McGeary 1969–2012

T
he day Leo died on Mount Hood, as the night skiers arrived my concern started to nag. When the weather changed and the sky darkened while I waited, for a short time I thought a joke was coming. Leo's jokes were a fixture in our marriage, but he still always got me. I was never onto him because he was discriminating and patient with his timing. No more than two good ones a year, and his best schemes were grand and I never expected them.

It started with him moving my wedding ring from where I'd left it. The first time, during the first year of our marriage, I took it off to do the dishes or clean the bathroom. It was so precious, I couldn't bear to wear it during those menial parts of my day. When I went to put it on again, I panicked when it wasn't in the porcelain dish on the kitchen windowsill. I was certain it had fallen down the drain and was gone forever.

“You don't lose things, Audrey.” He was cavalier. “It will turn up, I'm sure.”

“Well, can you at least take the sink apart, please?” I begged. “Find it before it goes down any farther.”

It pissed me off that he didn't care more. My wedding ring. The one he had given me. “I don't think it's down there,” he said. “But if you need me to, I will. Let me grab some tools.”

Then he called from the living room, “Babe, it's in here. It's on the mantel.”

He brought it to me, smiling. “Did you leave it there and forget?”

“I absolutely did not,” I said. “That's not where I put it. And I don't lose things.”

“I know you don't. Strange.” He could pull off his pranks, wearing a poker face for weeks while I was ignorant, but once I was onto him, he caved. He tried, but he couldn't curb his grin, like a boy who hadn't yet had years of practice. “Maybe we have an elf or a gnome in the house. Cheeky little bastard.”

“Bastard is right,” I said, and he surrendered and laughed, found out. I never ever lost my wedding ring but he moved it at least once a month. One weekday, just a month ago, he was working on the addition, and the boys were back in school after the break. I was cleaning what remained in the fridge from Christmas and had taken it off. I still kept the routine.

He came into the kitchen, dressed to work, tool belt and kneepads. “Hey, have you seen your ring?” he said. He spread his arms. “Here's a hint. It's somewhere on me. Find it.” That was a lovely afternoon we spent alone.

Then there was the much-needed and overdue girls' night out years ago that I'd planned with Erin and some other friends. I knew Leo's schedule, I'd double-checked, we'd arranged it weeks earlier. He was at the station, at the end of his shift, and I was getting dinner ready for the boys, ready for the handoff when he came home and I'd leave. When the phone rang, it was Leo, full of apology and regret, saying he had to cover at the station because a bunch of the guys had called in sick. They'd all eaten the same bad brisket at work.

“I'm so sorry, babe,” he said. “I know it's your night out. Thank God I'm not sick too.”

“Goddamn it, Leo,” I said. “Sometimes this is too hard.” The doorbell rang. “Jesus, now someone's at the door. Will you be home early at least?”

As he was saying, “No, I'll be here all night, I'm afraid,” I opened the door to him standing on the porch with a bag from Tumbleweed, a shop on Alberta I loved.

I took the phone away from my ear, and he smiled then, handing me the bag with flourish, like a proud cat bringing home the prize prey. I shook my head. He walked in and kissed me. “Open it,” he said.

It was a beautiful little dress. Something I could wear over skinny jeans, or by itself in the summer. A sweet print of blue and red, with ruching at the bust, and an empire waist. Exactly my style. That's the sort of thing he would do. The man could shop for me better than I could shop for myself. My friends, begrudging me nothing, hated their own husbands a little for it.

On my thirty-ninth birthday, I was getting my hair done. I was in the chair, and Suzanne was finishing up. Leo and I had reservations for dinner at Blue Hour at six. The sitter was coming—all I had to do was go home and change. Leo had been working all day on our bathroom remodel.

When my cell rang, Suzanne said, “Sure, go ahead.”

When I picked up, it was Leo. “Don't panic, darling, I'm okay. I've called some of the guys and they're headed over. I think we'll be okay for dinner.”

“What?” I said. “What happened?”

“Well, I was trying to level the tub, and the bitch fell on me and I'm stuck. Goddamn thing weighs a ton. Nothing feels broken. I'm all right. They're on their way. Just hurry home.”

I drove home in a fury, wondering why he hadn't had someone helping him. Why he'd thought he could move a claw-foot tub by himself. I knew we'd celebrate the dinner sometime, whether it was tonight or not. It wouldn't be the first time something like this had happened. When I opened the front door, panicked about what I'd find inside, a roomful of our friends shouted, “Surprise!” with Erin and Leo at the front of the crowd. There had been no trouble with a fallen tub, he had pulled off an impressive surprise, and it was a wonderful party, which I'd never suspected. Who celebrates thirty-nine?

The reason Leo's schemes always worked was because he wasn't greedy—he didn't overdo their frequency. And in a family with a firefighter husband and three sons, there were many times when a calamity or cancellation or interference with plans wasn't a ruse. Andrew fell at school and broke his arm when he was in first grade. Leo forgot to pick Brian up at preschool once because he'd thought I said I would, and the teacher had to call me when he was the only kid still left, sobbing and worried, forgotten by both parents. That's what made his pranks perfect. The reality and chaos of our lives made anything possible.

I never asked him why he did it. I didn't want to dissect the pranks' charms. When I was a teenager, I asked my father once why he loved my mother. I never thought of him as poetic, although he was a smart man and often loved the sound of his own voice, but his answer to my question was unexpected. “Audrey, if I thought about it, it would be like examining the unremarkable parts of a beautiful flower to see how together they make it exquisite. It would be disappointing.” That's how I felt about Leo's stunts. I suspected they were an outlet, a panacea to offset the awful things he saw on the job. To create—and completely control—a fabricated crisis that he alone knew would have a happy ending.

I didn't know how they all coped. Beyond what I heard on the news, and from other wives, occasionally, I knew about only the calls Leo chose to share with me. At the Motel 6 on Southeast Powell, which had a reputation in the department as the destination for suicides—the man who'd set himself on fire being one of the worst. There was the three-month-old who'd drowned in six inches of water. And the bicyclist fatalities, at least one hit-and-run every year. The teenage boy who had killed himself with a shotgun in his parents' bed. And the congenial man with dementia—deprived of food and water himself—whose caretaker-wife had been dead in their house for days. Leo told me that when they entered his apartment, the man had wanted them to sit down and visit. “He said, ‘Here you are. Maggie's run down to the store and should be back any minute,'” Leo said. “Christ, that poor, sweet man. Nothing but skin over bone.” But he didn't always tell me. I knew after the shifts he finished when he didn't want to talk. When he brooded and his mood was dark. He'd tell me if he wanted to, when he wanted to, and the only thing I could do was give him the space he needed to transition back to us.

The night after the call with the man on fire, we were on the front porch with glasses of wine after the boys were in bed.

“Come here,” he said. He patted the step between his legs.

I slid down and over from where I'd been sitting next to him, and put my glass on the step below me. He kneaded the base of my neck with his thumbs.

“I don't know how you get through a day like today,” I said.

“You hope there's not another one like it for a while,” he said. “But the very same thing could happen again tomorrow. Accountants get audited, right? Surgeons have patients die on the table, and executives get thrown in jail. It's what you sign up for.”

How he could be so grounded that night I didn't know, but I loved him for it. I thought of my father and not dissecting the flower.

“Look at Gallagher,” he said. Leo's closest friend at the station, Kevin Gallagher, had been a New York firefighter—a 9/11 survivor—before he'd moved his family to Portland. “Even after my worst shift, I'm lucky. That's not a cross I have to bear.”

  

That's what I thought about, Leo's jokes and what he had to do to get through on the job every day, while the time on the mountain dragged and I waited. We had had a flawless day, nothing but blinding blue above and new powder beneath. Because of the exquisite conditions, Leo wasn't ready to call it a day. Minutes after he had said to me,
One more. This snow is too good. We never have powder like this—just one more run and I'll see you at the bottom, babe,
minutes after I tracked his orange helmet to the lift and watched it rise until I lost sight of it, the weather over the mountain shifted and the low clouds socked in, fast. I thought nothing of it. We had all skied in worse. One more run and he'd be done.

While I waited, I was glad to be warm and inside, my body having had its fun, and now having its rest. The boys changed out of their wet gear, got their games and books from the car, and ate. I kept checking my cell phone even though there was no coverage. The boys, by now used to their father often appearing when he did and not when he was expected, were busy and unfazed. But I kept looking and waiting for Leo to walk through the hallway in the lodge, back to me, maybe having done what he had as a teenager with Garrett: gotten lost skiing out of bounds to where they couldn't ski back. They'd had to find the road and walk to the lodge. Everyone was frantic, while the boys had had an adventure. They were fifteen. I tried to think of what else could have happened. Maybe his delay was because he was helping someone else. But I started to think I should call the ski patrol office. We had season passes, and with Leo's bracelet information, surely they could locate him. I had just told myself I would wait ten more minutes when I heard my name announced over the PA system with instructions to call a number.

“Mrs. McGeary, this is Richard Allen,” said the voice on the other end. “I'm the physician here at the medical center today. Can you tell me where you are?”

“Please, it's Audrey,” I said. “What is it?”

“Can you tell me where you are in the lodge so I can come to you?” he said. “Ski patrol was contacted for an incident involving your husband and they're bringing him down.”

Him.
They were bringing
him.

I called the boys over and minutes later, three men in identical gear stood in front of us.

“I'm Richard Allen.” He extended his hand. “And this is Nick, and Jeff.” He indicated the other two. Then the three of them all reached for chairs, placed them in front of us, and sat down.

“A group of skiers observed your husband skiing downhill very fast before he collided with a tree,” Richard said. “They contacted ski patrol and we responded.”

“How badly is he hurt?” I said. “Can he walk?”

“When we got to your husband,” he said, “he had no vital signs, and despite trying to revive him, we were unable to.” He leaned closer to me. “I'm very, very sorry, Audrey. I know this is a terrible shock.”

The boys and I sat there. I was waiting for more. I was waiting for Richard Allen to say
but. But in a few months he'll be fine.
But he'll be able to tell you about it himself in a few minutes
.
But I recommend he be more careful in the future.
He was a very kind man, but he said none of these things.

Andrew started to wail and Christopher and Brian clutched him and the three of them attached themselves to me, no space between us. All I could do was kiss them and feel my body, heavy in the chair. My sons surrounded me like a small herd, which I tried to comfort and contain. They were all crying now, but Christopher and Brian still tried to soothe Andrew. I didn't cry. Not then.
My sons have lost their father.

“But you said you're bringing him down,” I said.

“They're bringing his body down,” said Richard. “We'll call the medical examiner to transport him to the funeral home of your choice, or to the one in Hood River until you decide. Is there anyone else you'd like us to call? When you're ready, we'll go so you can identify him.”

“But he was wearing a helmet,” I said. “How could this happen if he was wearing a helmet?”

“He was,” Richard said. “We have his helmet. He was going so fast, there's no way to know if he suffered a head trauma or another internal injury from the force of impact.”

Every day that Leo had gone to work, the possibility of his death hovered. That, I'd learned to live with, but not this.

“Is there anyone you'd like us to call?” Richard asked.

Who should they call? I would have to call my parents, Leo's parents and sister, my brother. So many people. Which was worse, making the call or getting it? It was a call no one wanted to get and I didn't want to make.

“Yes, please,” I said. I gave them Kevin's number, and Erin's. “They're close friends. Kevin and Leo work together.” Nick and Jeff stepped away and dialed.

And Garrett. It felt like the middle of the night here, though it wasn't, but it would be late in Boston. When did I last talk to him? Leo had told me he'd called Garrett on Christmas Eve, from work, but I couldn't remember the last time I'd spoken to him. That was a call I had to make. And our families. Erin could do the rest.

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