I called Roy Nellis on Friday evening and told him I needed to see him right away. I didn’t say what was on my mind over the telephone, only that I had something important that I wanted to discuss, and preferred to face him directly with what I had to say. He suggested we have dinner at the Docksider, with drinks at the house afterward, but I preferred the Captain’s Mate in Kittery. I thought it would give us an excuse to go for a ride and get out of town for a few hours. It was also Martha Crowley’s favorite seafood place. She’d talked about it all summer and I wanted to try it. The Docksider was right in downtown Portsmouth, which made it convenient, if overpriced. It also made it less private, more risky for running into someone we knew. With what was on my mind, I wanted to be sure I’d have Roy completely to myself. He agreed and we arranged to meet at his office at four-thirty the following afternoon.
Replacing the receiver I felt a clear sense of satisfaction, knowing I had just created for myself the opportunity to call Karen’s bluff. I spent the remainder of the evening thinking of what I would say. Roy seemed so innocent of the whole affair, so far removed from the muck of untamed human sexual desire, not aloof, but simply unable to soil himself with it by sheer dint of the innate goodness of his heart. In the end, I decided to stick with a straightforward rendition of the facts as I understood them. I knew I’d be with someone who would listen to what I had to say without passing judgment on me or my character.
Roy Nellis’s office was on State Street, little more than a block off Market Square. Turning into the alley behind the building the next day, I immediately spotted his Mercedes and pulled in alongside. The back door was unlocked so I walked right in without knocking. Down the hall a light shone in one of the rooms. I stuck my head in the door and found Roy sitting at a large desk that faced the entrance at a forty-five degree angle. He was buried in papers, with the telephone receiver propped up against his shoulder as he thumbed through what looked like a stack of financial statements.
“I’ll be right with you, Anne,” he said cupping the receiver. “I’ve got one more call to make. Have a seat.” He motioned toward a padded chair across from the desk.
“No rush,” I said. “I’ll wait out here.”
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I walked out into the front office and took a seat behind the secretary’s desk. The afternoon sun streamed in through the large, nine-paned windows that flanked the front door, bathing the room in a silvery, autumn light that spoke silently of the winter to come. I looked around the room. It was small, yet not cramped, owing to the thoughtful layout of its furnishings. The walls were trimmed in stained brown woodwork the same color as the desk and chairs. Somehow the suite of offices looked like a squeeze fit between Roy and the available space, yet it was entirely his, as if he’d succeeded in putting his indisputable stamp on a place that was entirely unsuited to him. He obviously took good care of his employees. The secretary had the same class of furniture as Roy himself. Jack’s indictment of his character came back to me from two nights earlier and I tried unsuccessfully to reconcile his rancorous pronouncements with what I saw in the office around me.
After a few minutes, Roy appeared in the doorway. “Ready?”
“Yep. Nice offices,” I said. “Let me know if you ever need a business manager, huh? I’m still interested.”
“So am I, but I’m afraid there’s less here than meets the eye. Lately I’m having enough trouble keeping my secretary and the securities analyst busy. But the economy won’t stay slow forever. As soon as things get better, we’ll talk about it.”
We climbed into Roy’s car and headed for Gasoline Alley and the Route One bridge. He seemed in excellent spirits and I dreaded the thought of having to spoil his mood with the news about Karen and Jack. For the first few minutes, I said nothing to him at all. To avoid his eyes, I focused my attention on the harbor as we passed over the Piscataqua River Bridge, high above the estuary. I thought it presented a scene of silent resignation, a nervous waiting for the onslaught of bad weather, the next verse in the litany of the seasons. The tide was out. At that moment it seemed as if all the water in the river of my life had been sucked out to sea with it, leaving me high and dry as surely as it had left the bulkheads below us.
The Captain’s Mate was an ordinary kind of place, once one got passed the purely tourist appeal of its brown shingled siding and white trimmed windows. The front portion looked as if it had been converted from a house. The dining room had obviously been added at the back and was right on the water’s edge, with rows of plate glass windows along two walls that looked out to sea. The low ceiling gave the room an intimate feel all out of proportion to its ample size. This ambience was enhanced by dark, rough-hewn wood paneling and a plethora of reproduction antique signs and nautical paraphernalia that hung everywhere. I felt as if I’d walked into the wrong banquet room at a wedding reception. A hostess appeared and seated us at a small table by the wall opposite the ocean view. This location presented a disappointment for me, but a better opportunity for the restaurant, which was already filling with Saturday night crowds, hungry from a day of late-season leaf peeping.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Roy said.
“I was hoping you’d let me buy the first round,” I said. “I invited you, remember? What are you having?”
“A Manhattan. Nice and dry.”
“Of course.” It was his favorite drink. I ordered a glass of Chardonnay for myself. From the standpoint of our drinks, one would think that life was proceeding at an orderly pace for both of us, that all was as it should be. After babbling my way into our second round, I fell silent as I prepared to open fire.
“How’s Karen?” I said.
He darkened slightly without losing an essentially buoyant attitude. “Gone to the Cape and won’t be back till Sunday.”
“What’s she doing on Cape Cod at this time of year? She doesn’t strike me as a cold weather person.”
“Her mother lives there, and her sister, too. Lately it seems like she’s down there every other weekend. At first I thought it might be the ocean or the colors, but now I don’t know. She never showed this level of interest in her family before. What about you? You said you had something you wanted to talk about.”
I squirmed in my seat and dropped my eyes. “Jack and I broke up Thursday night.”
“Did you?” His voice turned flat and expressionless. “I’m sorry to hear that. I thought you two were pretty close to getting engaged.”
“So did I.”
I hesitated again and spelled out the story about June Wakefield. “Lucy says he’s been seeing Karen, too. I don’t know how often or how recently. Last month was the last time, as far as I know. He claims it’s over, that it was nothing, but I can’t be sure.”
Roy pressed his lips together and nodded, closing his eyes. I wasn’t certain what his reaction would be, though I knew him well enough to suspect he’d be devastated. What was unexpected for me was that it looked like he already knew.
“I assume you’ve already talked to him about it,” he said.
“Yeah, last night,” I said. “He tried to bluff me with some crap about a theatrical production and real estate deals. He told me about Lucy.”
“He did, huh? Just as well. You’d have found out soon enough anyway. I never could understand what the big secret was about. Probably Lucy’s idea.” He nodded slowly. “My dear Karen. I knew she didn’t love me. Our attempts to save the marriage had failed, I knew that. For all I know, she’s got someone down on the Cape as well. Jack Miller. I imagined it might be someone from the theatre group, but not Jack.”
“Actually, it didn’t surprise me too much in retrospect, once I got used to the idea of it. In many ways Karen’s still a young woman. And too sophisticated for most of the others in the group. Too sophisticated for me, what the hell.”
“I suppose you’re right. She always did move fast. I had a traditional upbringing, church, Sunday school and all that. I didn’t play around much before I married her.”
“Neither did I until I met Jack.”
“That shouldn’t make any difference, though.”
“Shouldn’t it? I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t all of a piece.”
“Self above all else. You conceive of a blueprint for your life and try to follow it no matter what, or else you let yourself be carried about by your appetites. Either way it’s a bull in a china shop.”
He shrugged. “I must say he has good taste. You and Karen. My two favorite women.”
I flushed a little and wanted to verbally push the compliment off, but given Roy’s state of mind, thought better of it.
His eyes glazed over and a moment passed before he spoke again. “I thought he was all right. I’ve known his father for years, strictly as a business contact, of course. I never believed most of the things people said about his private life. More of a focus for Lucy’s resentment than anything else, in my opinion. We all make mistakes, what the heck.” He looked over toward the sea-view windows and the tables full of laughing, chattering people.
My mind wandered to the cottage. I realized it wasn’t so much Jack that I missed, but the excitement, the sense of well-being, the love and tenderness and the casual, comfortable feeling of living as man and wife, without restraint on the interplay of our souls, verbal or physical. It’s a thing with its own value, its own offer of fulfillment. I could’ve been there with anyone. And then I recognized my attention was off Roy, that I wasn’t as concerned for him as for my own sense of loss, my own fear that I’d had my chance, that love wouldn’t come my way again. I sat in silence, my eyes inclined a safe distance from his, focused on the collar of his shirt.
“I tried hard to please her,” he said. “I guess I just didn’t know what she wanted most of the time, what she needed. No different than a lot of other married couples, I suppose. Karen was from an old Portsmouth family that’d had its up and downs—more downs in recent years. We both knew she was moving up economically when she married me. It was one of the advantages I felt I had to offer her. I’ve never held back from giving her things. I set her folks up on the Cape, for heaven’s sake.” He moved his eyes to the windows again. “I guess we’ve been betrayed by the same man,” he said at last with a lame air of resignation.
“More like the same woman. It’s Karen that deserves most of the blame for screwing things up for us, I think.” I blanched. “I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Sometimes I’m a bit too honest with my feelings.”
“No, you’re not. You’re like a breath of fresh air. I need that. Besides, we both know you’re right.”
It was dark by the time we finished with dinner. The food was a disappointment, partly in comparison to the reputation of the restaurant, partly because of my feelings. It was still early. I didn’t want to go home yet, but I didn’t want to do anything or see anyone either. It was one of those evenings after an emotional storm when the only effective therapy seemed to be one of my long walks through the back streets of town.
“My offer of drinks at the house still stands,” he said as we crunched across the parking lot gravel to the car.
“It’s tempting. Maybe another time,” I said.
“So, where to now?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s your next move? Any plans?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do. Take a vacation, maybe. I’ve started thinking about leaving Portsmouth.”
“We should stay in touch.”
“Mmm.” I climbed into the Mercedes and sat back in my seat. My mood dropped as I began to brood on the events of that summer and fall. I lost all interest in conversation. I wondered if Roy and I had reached some final stage in our friendship, that Karen had succeeded in splitting us apart as surely as she’d severed me from Jack. I glanced at Roy once we were on the move, but his eyes remained fixed on the road ahead, cold and ashen in the reflected light from passing streetlamps. After a few moments I rolled the window part way down to get some air. The snappish smell of fallen leaves combined with the dank aroma of the sea added to the atmosphere of impending cold and quiet. Turning to the darkness outside, I yielded at last to despair.