By John Franc



Tin House Books
September 2011
250 pages


One night in your darkness you rushed out to the Pink Pearl by yourself. It was a Saturday, barely past midnight. Surely you had to know you'd be stirring the milkshake. You were shown into a room that didn't even have a bath and where the bed took up an entire wall. You should have left then. When the parade began it was so short that if you had blinked you would have missed it and unfortunately there wasn't anything to miss. Through the walls you could hear the exertions and exhortations of the competition that had beaten you to market. "Is that all there is?" you asked the hostess. "I'm afraid so," she said. You lay on the bed and stared at the dark ceiling. Could you really get up and leave? "Suzannah?" the hostess suggested. "Suzannah," you said, without even looking at the hostess and without even knowing which of the four Suzannah was.

When she arrived you wrestled to remember what we had tried to tell you to do if it went like this, that if you could just demonstrate some enthusiasm she would respond enthusiastically. She was a person, for god's sake, and you struggled to overlook her noticeable belly and the distinctive sag of her buttocks, but she saw you noticing. You took a long draw from your drink. You'd never had a drink for four hundred before, but that was what this was beginning to look like. You glanced longingly at the door out as you made your way into the shower. In the distance you could hear howls of ecstasy, but even your own shower offered only a lukewarm trickle.

"I can't believe this," you muttered to yourself.

As you were released from the room twenty-three minutes later, a beautiful girl in a red slip came staggering from quarters far larger than yours down the hall, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand while back inside the room a guy was thrusting himself into another girl who was on all fours atop a great wide bed, and as you took this all in you were dismayed to discover that all three of them were looking at you, wondering what the hell had led you to be standing there frozen in place. You hurried up the stairs.

Behind the third door on the first floor, a door you had failed to notice before, you could hear several showers going and the almost dreamy chatter of girls resting between gigs, talk of imminent vacations to the mountains or on the coast, of moving back to their hometowns and buying houses, of lazy husbands or inattentive boyfriends. You wanted to stand there and listen forever, to enter their ordinary lives, but there really was no place to linger. Outside, on the street, you lit a cigarette and began walking quickly down into town. Even a bad night could be a good night, if you gave it a chance. It struck you, much delayed, that the Pink Pearl, unlike all the other places you had been, had no locks on any of their private rooms, and that it was, from what you could see, staffed entirely by women. It was hard not to like the Pink Pearl, even when it gave you a less than mediocre girl. You got home quickly, these solo trips much more efficient than our garrulous camaraderie, and your wife cupping her scotch on the pumpkin sofa smiled warmly at you and said, "Hey, you're home early." You two hadn't had sex this entire spring. It wasn't fair for our wives, you said, to compete against eighteen- and twenty-two- and twenty-seven-year olds who had to make their living off their bodies. Our wives were beautiful enough, but not that beautiful, not that lithe, not so silky as professionals. Yes, we couldn't dispute the occasional whiff of the unsavory. Yes, we couldn't disagree that there were some things we certainly would not do with the girls, but the girls were still girls. They were not middle-aged women who had suffered through the wrack and ruin of childbirth and breast-feeding and whatever other corrosive physical duties childrearing involved, and surely there were many. Whereas for us the only thing that childbirth took from us restored itself easily and almost instantly in our bodies, and for whatever other ills it created there was always the gym and the bar and these apartments and places that we had so recently discovered.

Despite what anyone might think, we did possess some empathy for our wives. We loved them, for god's sake. That wasn't enough, we knew, but it was true.

"Shorter walk than usual," you said.

She looked at you intently as you sat down beside her on the corduroy sofa.

"Are you having an affair?" She leaned closer to you and you made yourself not pull away. "You're having an affair, aren't you? I bet you're having an affair!"

"I am not having an affair."

"'Course you are." She gave you a strange, drunken smile, a lure as if to say that's all right, I don't mind when you knew she would mind a whole hell of a lot. She touched you playfully with a single index finger. "We have had sex just twice the last six months. So who is this you're having an affair with?"

"Whoever could I be having an affair with?" you asked.

You both thought about that for a minute. You could not afford to move from her, but you were curious to look into the liquor cabinet to see how much scotch she had drunk. Then you spied the empty bottle on the floor by the trash. You returned to making yourself look her in the eye.

"Don't know," she concluded.
"There's no one," you said.
"'Course there is," she said. "Maybe one of your clients.

Maybe someone who pays you money," she teased.
You laughed genuinely. "Now that's rich," you said. You patted her on her bare knee and strode to the liquor cabinet. An opened bottle of scotch beckoned. So she'd had more than a few shots. That was a lot for her. You poured a substantial glass, hoping that might get you in the mood. Over the past few months and many girls, several fine conclusions had found their way to you, and one was that marriage was a most unnatural and misguided institution. Even saintly husbands confessed that they lusted in their hearts.

"Are you seeing anyone?" you asked, feeling the odd cocktail of hopefulness and dread as that mouthful left you, wondering if what we were trying to tell you could actually be true.

"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "Who would want to see me?"

You knew that at least one of us had a crush on your wife. We'd told you that. You also knew it was against all rules to pursue anything like that, unless it was agreed to by all parties, and while you hadn't disagreed you clearly hadn't agreed yet either. The truth was we were all hypocrites, outlandishly betraying our wives while being intensely territorial about them in the typical male fashion. It was a contradiction we refused to discuss.

"The tenor," you said, trying to keep the anxiety from your voice.

"Him?" she said, and gave that little toss of her head that she used when she was being flirtatious. "He's not interested in me."

"He should get his own girl," you said passionately, bitterly, because that was a line you'd heard one of us use to great effect. Talk about deflecting scrutiny, suspicion, whatever it was!

"He's harmless," she said.
"No one is harmless," you said.
She sipped her scotch. "Apparently not."
You both sat there on the sofa thinking about the tenor.

None of us knew him particularly well, but he was always there, in the background, lingering, invited to everything but never hosting a thing himself. One of the kids' schools called him its singer-in-residence and he was in residence, all right. Our wives bought his cds and steered our children to him for singing lessons, but with the exception of dinner parties we wouldn't allow him in our homes. We had good instincts for this kind of thing. That tenor. That candy-assed tenor. There were worse guesses than that tenor.

"You like his vests," you said mournfully. "They're silly," she agreed.
"It's a cliché to have an affair with a tenor." "I'm not having an affair! You are!"

And so we all were fathers, brothers, sinners, betraying our wives, betraying our families, and betraying ourselves, and perhaps wondering if we too were being betrayed, but never betraying each other. If you relaxed and looked objectively enough, you could see the honor in this, though when we read or heard words like morality or character or soul, or love or trust or fidelity, or marriage or parent or father or husband, or truth or honesty, of course we cringed. It was awful to think that we were the men who made us feel normal, who allowed us to feel sane, because we were all as evil and hurtful as each of us was. Was there any way to reinvent ourselves and jettison from this moral catastrophe of our own creation?