Last December the former Managing Editor of Wales Arts Review, P. J. Morris, tragically and unexpectedly passed away. In addition to being an important cultural force in Wales, Morris was also an accomplished playwright and emerging fiction writer of outstanding ability. Here we publish online a short story first published in The Lonely Crowd, Issue Six: ‘The Settlement’.
John Goodlander calls his wife Joan from the office one morning to tell her that he won’t be coming home later that day – that he will never return to the house they own in the New Jersey suburbs. His tone is strangely cool, disassociated from his words.
Joan begs him to come home, he replies with an urgent:
“Joanie, please don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.”
He issues a series of demands and instructions, something concerning Dynamo, their German shepherd, which she can’t quite follow as she’s sobbing loudly. He lists several people he knows who might act for her, in legal matters.
“You following me honey? It’s really important that you listen.”
Her sobs subside, momentarily, although her breathing is hard. “You can tell me all this over dinner tonight.”
“I’ve already explained to you, that’s impossible.” He sounds exasperated, even a little angry. “Listen Joanie, just remember throughout all that’s to come, that I love you.”
The last three words are obscured by a crackle on the line.
“I love you!”
“Then come back to me.”
There’s a long silence between them, before he mutters quietly, “I’m sorry.”
Joan’s employer, Dr. Linscott (a dentist) is very understanding about her situation. He tells her to take some time off – a week, maybe two, until, that is, she’s able to face the world again. He hires a temp. She spends a month watching cable news channels all day dressed in her flannel robe, eating cheese-flavoured corn snacks wrapped in wafer-thin slices of ham. She can’t sleep and won’t take a pill.
Almost every woman in the neighbourhood comes by to visit her during the long weeks after. They stand on her porch, armed with large crock-pots full of mac n’ cheese or homemade chilli. All these women want to talk about is the settlement that is owed to her. They commonly agree that the settlement should be large. They provide, with some insistence, the names of various lawyers; it seems important to each of these women that Joan is adequately represented throughout the process. Joan thanks the women for their food but doesn’t invite one of them inside her home. She ignores all talk of legal representation but finds herself drawn, instead, to the men who accompany the women; each one standing just a little off the shoulder of his wife, shifting his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other, silent for the most part but offering an occasional slight nod or stupid smile. Like John, the men sport a familiar combination of golf shirts and chinos.
The food provided by her neighbours eventually winds up in the garbage disposal. Joan becomes concerned that she’s recently grown a little fat and swears off carbs and red meat. The elegant black dress she bought several years ago, which she desperately wants to wear again, feels too tight at the hips and bust. Applying make-up to her tired and puffy eyes, she wonders idly if it’s worth making the effort. When, with a nervy, half-suppressed girly giggle, she impulsively decides to drive out to the Palisades Mall in West Nyack, which has a four-storey Macy’s outlet and several fashionable boutiques.
The seven-hundred-and-ninety-nine-dollar designer two-piece suit that she finds in the window of Neelams seems to her, at first, a crazy extravagance. Nothing in her small walk-in closet costs more than two hundred and fifty bucks. Yet she can’t resist trying the thing on, and when the sales assistant points out that black is a slimming color and that the suit is marked down from eleven-hundred dollars – she’s finally persuaded to buy it along with nylons and pumps. For Joan, this purchase is a small act of self-liberation. She doesn’t pause to consider how close she might be to the credit limit on her Amex card. The settlement she’s to receive some day will clear all debt and set her up for life, she reassures herself.
The glossy shopping bags – pink with silver-embossed calligraphed logos, and dark-grey corded hand-straps – appear reassuringly expensive to Joan. She had feared that having to be the one to have to spoil herself would cause her some embarrassment, yet she enjoys choosing her own clothes free from the dreaded end-of-month ritual of balancing the check book with John. A pang of guilt at that thought is quickly dismissed from her mind as she glides through the neon-bright mall, seemingly weightless in spite of her growing number of bags. She watches her fellow shoppers; hundreds, thousands in the thrall of frenzied retail. The Palisades mezzanine level is clogged with fat men waddling toward the parking structure, their arms laden with surround-sound home-cinema systems. Such sights make Joan feel a little giddy. While she isn’t someone to order her soda by the bucket, she takes in a host of jewellers, donut stalls and department stores and marvels at the vast range of choices that have suddenly opened up to her. A wave of patriotic fervor suddenly swells inside her at the recognition of what it means to live in the richest country in the world, to share in its wealth and plenty.
There are no available tables in the food court, so Joan sits across from another woman who, like her, is aged around forty-five.
The dark-haired woman confides, in barely disguised anger, “I tell you, when my Joey – Christ that asshole – when he left me, I swore to myself, I swore that I would not be a victim.” Her long painted nails squeeze her hamburger until its blue-cheese topping oozes out from beneath the bun. “And that’s the choice we have to make honey, or else we’ll get swallowed up by all the bitterness, and depression, or whatever…”
Joan nods in passive agreement. She immediately regrets wearing her wedding ring out of sentiment.
“Got any kids?”
Joan smiles thinly, then shakes her head.
“Oh, boy you’re lucky. Just you make sure you get what you earned baby, and enjoy it! Hell, you deserve it and you got no ungrateful kids around to tell you any different.”
“Yes, I do deserve it,” Joan says flatly, prodding at her fat-free Caesar salad with a plastic fork.
Later, Joan stops into a hair salon to get herself a hundred-and-ten-dollar hairstyle, plus a facial that costs sixty with tax. The stylist, a young bottle blonde in her early twenties, yammers on about how ‘because of that whole thing’ she doesn’t feel safe anymore, but Joan has become grimly fascinated by the sight of a wattle of skin dangling from beneath her chin and fades out the garbled fear and anxiety. Before leaving, she spends a further three-hundred dollars on a basket of salon-style hair and skin products and makes herself a repeat appointment four weeks ahead.
Months pass and business cards from various lawyers turn up with annoying regularity in Joan’s mailbox. Her best friend, Lexi, advises her to interview the three that sound the ‘most Jewish’ and choose the meanest son-of-a-bitch among them. Joan chooses Ezra Nussbaum because of his biblical first name.
“We have ourselves a nice, straight-forward case here Mrs. Goodlander,” Nussbaum says between slurps from a can of diet coke.
His suit must have cost him two-thousand dollars, she observes to herself, yet his breath reeks of sauerkraut and pastrami.
“There’s your loss of his future earnings, which we can index link to his executive pay-scale. That’ll add up to a pretty significant sum I’d imagine. Then there’s his 401K, that’s a factor – as is the loss of income from his stock options and so on. We’re talking a big pile of cash here.”
“Well Mrs. Goodlander, these things take their time. Have no illusions, the other side will play hardball.” He grimaces wanly, “But then so will I.”
Nussbaum does indeed do well for Joan. When the settlement documentation arrives for her signature, she discovers the final pay-out to be much greater than she’d hoped.
Joan quits her job as an ‘executive receptionist’ and celebrates by buying a new car. At this time of national crisis she thinks it only right to buy American. With the country at war it’d be wrong to do otherwise. The news reports say that Detroit is facing hard times, with thousands getting laid off. Her father came from Dearborn and always bought Ford, establishing a family loyalty to the company. Joan will make her small but not unimportant contribution to the nation’s economy by upgrading to a Cadillac. At the dealership, she is awed by the size and luxury of the Escalade, with its French-stitched leather seats, available in cashmere nuance, and leather-trimmed power-tilt adjustable steering wheel with integrated controls for audio and cruise. Its Bose 5.1 speakers mean that she can play her favourite tunes – eighties power ballads – at a low volume, while maintaining a crispness of sound and detailed instrumentation. A rear-seat entertainment system offers ‘state-of-the-art’ video to the second and third rows of the vehicle. Joan pays no thought as to who might sit in the rear of the Escalade to enjoy this feature. It is a ‘me too’ car. A statement. A declaration of intent. Her chosen model retails at over sixty-eight thousand dollars.
Joan fills her time with weekend road trips in the Escalade to rural New Jersey or upstate New York, where she and Lexi often go antiquing. During the week, she mostly shops or goes to coffee-mornings hosted, by rota, in the homes of her friends. Amy Vellucci unveils a newly-bought Grael ES90 Double Thermablock Espresso Machine at one of these get-togethers.
“If you want bean-to-cup coffee in the comfort of your own home, then you must get yourself one of these Joan.” Amy stands at her machine, grinding beans and pulling on levers with the easy efficiency of an experienced barista. “I can make an espresso or Americano using my own blend of imported Ethiopian beans. And, look here, with this three-hundred-and-sixty-degree rotatable milk froth attachment I can fix you the perfect cappuccino or latte.”
The other women compliment Amy on her smooth-tasting coffee; but Joan’s interest lies in the aesthetics of the machine. It’s smaller than the one she’s seen in the artisan bakery at Palisades, but its stainless steel grinders, filters and steam pipes are impressively gleaming. She thinks to herself – it’ll go nicely with the imported pasta-maker I bought last July.
“And how are you doing Joanie?” Amy asks in her customary over-earnest tone.
“Oh I’m good. Finally taking control of my life.”
“Well isn’t that just great!”
“Yes, yes it is.”
“Listen, Roger and me, well we’re planning this little dinner party at the end of the month. It’ll just be Roger, me, the McAllister’s, you and someone from Roger’s office.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t.”
“Honey, where else are you going to meet someone new, someone special?”
“Jeez Amy, I don’t know. I can’t face all that right now.”
“Listen, I know it still hurts honey, but at some point you’ve got to move on. Even though you’re still angry with all that happened, it’s time, you know?”
“Uh-huh. So what more can you to tell me about this Grael Double Thermablock?”
“I want one.”
At the end of the year, Joan elects to have some cosmetic surgery, a Christmas treat. She has a neck tuck to get rid of her wattle, and an eye-lift to iron out her crow’s feet. The surgery is expensive but highly accomplished. The work on her neck is discreetly done. There is no odd-looking tautness around her eyes to give her away. She runs into a friend at a dry-cleaners who tells her that she looks terrific. She waits for her friend’s eyes to search her face for signs of the surgeon’s handiwork, but the money has been well spent.
She takes a luxury cruise round the Caribbean – deluxe suite with balcony – to escape an unusually bitter winter. There’s some vague unexpressed hope that she could also meet someone with whom she might enjoy a ship-board romance. Yet in spite of a few dances with some older men who behave wonderfully, and a dinner-date with a younger man who does not, no such romance is to be had. Perhaps there’s too much baggage from her marriage, Joan reflects sadly – so much lingering pain that she’s unable to believe that love is worth having again.
She trades in the Escalade for a new Toyota Corolla. There are conflicted feelings about buying Japanese, but, given the President’s warning about the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, she considers it her duty to drive a car with better gas consumption. Such decisions are easy for her to make, they’re questions of right and wrong with implications for national and, by extension, personal security.
Ten years pass.
As her home fills up with boxed electronic goods, items of antique furniture and fine glassware (a new enthusiasm) – much of it still in bubble wrap – Joan invests in a home security alarm system and buys herself a nine-millimetre Beretta Nano. The gun is stored in a lock-box under her bed. Sometimes, during her frequent sleepless nights, she becomes breathless at the thought of someone coming to take away all of her things. Should anyone dare, she would kill them.
One hot August day, Joan receives a call. She struggles to locate the cordless phone in all the heaving clutter that’s collected in her lounge area and dining room. Hurling aside a box containing an unpacked Dyson vacuum cleaner, she rifles through a heap of designer lingerie, hurried by the phone’s persistent ringing.
“Good morning Mrs. Goodlander, as you are no doubt aware, this year’s annual memorial ceremony is almost upon us again…”
Joan snaps, “This is a bad time to be calling me.”
“Ma’am, we… I know you’ve declined our invitations to attend on previous occasions, but, I thought we should do you the courtesy of asking again – after all these years.”
Joan sees through her front window that the skies are as cloudlessly blue as the day she received John’s final call.
“Who is this?”
“I’m calling on behalf of the organising committee of the memorial ceremony. We thought you might like to attend, maybe read out your husband’s name.”
Joan makes several bark-like sobs that seem to rumble up from her stomach. She leans against a doorjamb for support. “John! You know I begged him to come back, but he… My God…”
“Are you okay Ma’am?
“Is there someone with you?”
Her weeping quietens. “It’s okay. Yes, I’ll do it. I’ll be there. You know they couldn’t even find me a body?”
“He’s gone. It’s gone, all his money, gone. I spent everything. Now I’ve got nothing; no body, no grave. All I have now is his name.”
P.J. Morris is a writer, critic and academic. He co-founded Wales Arts Review and served as its Managing Editor from 2012 – 2016. After graduating from LAMDA in 1996, he worked as an actor for touring companies and BBC TV. His plays have been staged at the Finborough Theatre and Riverside Studios in London, and by Welsh theatre company Dirty Protest. He was a Senior Lecturer in English & Applied Drama at the University of Wales, Newport, and has taught at Ohio University, University of Dubuque and Morley College. His short stories have been published in New Welsh Review, The Lonely Crowd and A Fiction Map of Wales. He is currently completing a novel for his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
Image by Jo Mazelis.