Megan Staffel

Tertium Quid

Meredith was a good person. She had been young once, but now she had entered the age of entropy, and the great media machine of American culture gunned past her, its probes searching out juveniles. Movies, music, TV shows, like bathing suits and bras, were not created for a person like her. Sixty and beyond, it was the age no one wanted to be reminded of, except of course the other women who had reached it also. They were an army that is no longer needed yet still wanders the countryside, doing all of the things they were taught to do despite the fact that no one was watching.

Why wasn’t it a celebration? Birth control, pregnancy scares: relics of a bygone era! The always lovely nipples, once so eager, poking through the blouse at the cry of an infant, any infant—they were no longer on call! No more blood, no more babies, no more milk! No guilt for staying home with sick children. No sick children fending for themselves while mommy worked. The whole megillah, come to an end, and now a different mixture of hormones that required a tweezers to the chin every once in awhile, extracting the male whisker. What was going to happen next? It seemed to Meredith that, in the end, goodness put her on the wrong path; it was time to say what she desired.

And she was lucky. She had a husband, also aged, and the two of them had Dr. Zoot. Dr. Zoot was the only one at the frontier who welcomed the troops. Women in their waning years: he liked them.

“Yes indeedy,” Dr. Zoot murmured, perched high on a limb of a tree, licking his chops as he watched the troops clanking across the field with their heavy, outdated equipment.

Gregory, the husband, was a few years older than Meredith, but he had a head of hair that was still just as thick and deeply black as it had been when he was young. At least his hairline had receded, and those two fresh scoops, Meredith thought, had a certain je ne sais quoi. Well, they were paths to the interior. Scoops of transport. Tomorrow they were going to the Dexlers for a dinner party, but tonight, why, there was nothing on the calendar. “Hey,” Meredith said, draping her arm over Gregory’s shoulder, fitting her palm on his nice plump bottom. “Wanna mess around?”

“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m going to bed.”

“How about I come up and we see what happens?”

Forget it. A thought not voiced. The husband had been trained. “I’d really look forward to doing that with you some time, but tonight I’m really tired. I have to get horizontal. My back aches.”

“You’re sure? I can’t do a little convincing? Maybe the doctor is interested.”

“The doctor is not interested.”

“How do you know? Sometimes he surprises us.”

“Not this time. Trust me, nothing’s going to happen.”

Dr. Zoot had grown older too, but he hadn’t noticed. It seemed the male ego was indestructible, while the female ego, those sad, tired soldiers marching through the hot, deserted fields, grew dispirited. Of course, Dr. Zoot was not the actual phallus. He was chief of staff, spokesperson. The phallus itself . . . well, it was one of the mysteries. Beyond reason, definition, understanding, its inscrutability was perhaps what she liked the most.

Women were more predictable, and, as far as Dr. Zoot was concerned, the naughtier the better. But any age, any type, was entertaining. He whirled, he danced, he imagined. In the mornings he peed off the porch in full view of the road and wandered around without trousers, his air-cooled parts still pink and bouncy though some of those hairs were gray.

In reality—but what was that? And whose? Meredith’s sophomore year roommate, an aspiring fashion designer named Carmen, had created Dr. Zoot in her sketchbook and he’d become the model for her line of gangster-era clothing.

She’d given him a sinister look. She’d posed him against crime-scene backdrops: on bridges, at loading docks, in railroad yards. “I have to tell you something, Merry. It’s about that guy you brought back here. Gregory? Because I’m really a little worried. You probably don’t see it, but when I look at him . . . well, it’s obvious that it’s on his mind every second. Those lips. That line of intense red under the mustache. He wants things. All the time. Do you like it, being his victim?” Poised on small feet that supported, perfectly, her wide, generous body, Carmen, had raised her thin, starved eyebrows. It was 1973, the age of the free and undisciplined body, and not many women plucked.

“No,” Meredith replied in a timid voice, even though she knew no wasn’t the right answer because victim wasn’t the right way to describe the thing she had with Gregory. But yes wouldn’t have worked either.

“Be careful, Meredith. You are not his toy, remember that. You are not a thing for him to play with.”

“Right,” she replied. “But I’m not. It’s not like that. Not at all. It’s . . .” She hesitated, realizing suddenly how different they were, looking for a quality Carmen might respect. “Fun.” That word was followed by a cold silence. “Cool,” Carmen said from her side of the room, then added in a kinder voice, “I just don’t want you to be used by him. But if it’s fun, then okay. You would know, right?”

Dr. Zoot was a thin man with long hair and a mustache. He walked through the sketchbook in the seven outfits Carmen called the Italian Collection. Meredith noticed there was something familiar about the lightly penciled face. Then she realized. It was Gregory wearing the long topcoat, the pleated pants. In one of the drawings he was on the Brooklyn bridge, a machine gun pointed at the Manhattan skyline.

Was she a toy? But she liked it. It was secret and exciting and dark and it was never the same. And if she was a toy, wasn’t Gregory one too? It was all so hard to figure out. There were feelings and then there were ideas. And under it all, there was this shared instinct, this thing they’d discovered together, an amazing, breathless ability to explode themselves into new people. Was it only sex? She didn’t know. But what was hers or his and who was being used . . . that was old stuff, no longer relevant.

Five years later, they were living together, and one day, apropos of nothing, Meredith said, “Remember my roommate?”

“The one with the big tits. From Queens.”

“That’s exactly what she would expect you to say. Why the focus on her breasts?”

“They were really big. I was hoping to catch her with her shirt off. Because she always covered them up with all this stuff, I don’t know, sweaters or overalls or something.”

“That was exactly her point. There you are, thinking about sex, always sex.”

“So. What’s wrong with that?” There was a completely unperturbed look on Gregory’s face. He had short, neatly trimmed hair because the age of the free and undisciplined body was slowly giving way to the age of the super-groomed. Even Gregory. Not only did he cut his hair, he shaved, and when he smiled, she saw the solid clean sweep of his naked jaw.

Gregory taught pottery in an after school program; Meredith taught acting. She also wrote plays, applied for grants, and did whatever she could to nourish the necessary belief in things that didn’t actually exist, like funding and audiences willing to support the dramatic arts. She’d learned to trust the dubious, the hopeful, the almost. Which was why it was necessary to pay attention to the concrete things of her life. Like the curve of Gregory’s smooth cheekbone.

“Dr. Zoot. That’s what she called you.”

He gave her an uncomprehending look.

“You know, the gangster type. That’s what she thought you were. A fornicator, a dirty jokes man, a tits and ass guy.”

“But I am,” Gregory replied, his beautiful lips stretching wide and the honest slope of his chin melting her insides.

After that, Meredith brought the gangster into their lives and he grew into an avuncular third party. Bold and sloppy from lack of inhibition, he went everywhere with them. “Sit on that seat!” he cried from the back of their car when they passed a woman in tight nylon shorts cycling down the road. They were used to it. And now, long married, the kids grown up, there was no need to hide. Meredith loved him. Who else paid any attention? Who else, in the later years, was still desperate with desire?

When it was just them, in the car or in the house, she would feel a kind of wrinkling in the air and then she’d see his bright blue face, his warty nose and bloodshot eyes. She’d smell cigar smoke, and soon after, she’d hear a remark. “Take it off!” he shouted at a female newscaster who looked worn out and brittle, despite the dyed hair, the youthful clothes, the makeup. Zoot wants you, Meredith could say. But she didn’t talk to TVs like he did.

They called it an August feast. The Dexlers lived on the ridge over the next valley with their two-year-old granddaughter, a Chinese orphan their daughter had adopted and then abandoned when her husband had a nervous breakdown. “It’s so sad. Isn’t it sad?”

Gregory, from long habit, could guess the context. “I don’t know. What else would they be doing?”

“At their age to have to be parents again. To go through it all again. It must be exhausting.”

“It could happen to us too. You never know.”

“I hope not.”

“Well, don’t worry, at the rate our guys are going, we won’t have any grandchildren at all.”

He pronounced it with a finality that surprised her.

“Wouldn’t that disappoint you?”

“I don’t know, haven’t really given it any thought.”

“Oh gosh, it would me. I think it would be wonderful.” She gushed like any crone considering progeny.

“You can’t predict. Who knows? Nothing happens the way you imagine.”

Gregory believed in the body. He felt that all things would work out, and though he didn’t condone Dr. Zoot’s gin and mafia values, he also didn’t share Meredith’s earth-mother worries. The planet would heal. The species would survive. He’d moved from the body of clay to the human body, and now he was a chiropractor with a small, rural practice.

The car radio, tuned to the local NPR station, whispered the news, and then suddenly a dreadfully loud and cheerful voice sang out from the dashboard, announcing women’s career day at the local college. “All area high school girls are invited to visit the campus and discover their many options. You can be an accountant, an architectural engineer, a business administrator, a computer programmer, a court reporter . . .”

“A cock sucker!” Zoot shouted from the back seat.

“Imagine a career in the culinary arts, digital animation, forensic science technology . . .”

“Loaded with benefits!” he cackled.

Meredith saw the runny, bloodshot eyes, the molding, tattered suit. Carmen would be appalled.

The Dexlers’ house sat at the top of a hill, a tidy box situated at the end of a long, freshly graveled driveway. As their car crunched towards it, thick white dust swirled about their windows. Meredith didn’t bother to knock because she could hear voices in the back. During the summer, all activities happened outside, behind the house, where there was a generous flagstone patio with a grill, picnic table, and dramatic views plunging in all directions. A huge striped umbrella was opened over the table and, as Meredith helped Phyllis carry out drinks and hors d’oeuvres, a catbird performed from the bushes, speaking in the voices of all of the other birds of the neighborhood, trilling and yanking and squeaking at a rapid, insistent volume. By the time dinner was served, the bird had flown and the trees were swathed in darkness. Invisible cicadas, looking for mates, roared into the night.

“We are so lucky,” Phyllis said. “This paradise. This August music. Honey, did you check her diaper?”

Vern stood up. With his tongs, he set an ear of corn on everyone’s plate. “It’s fine. And if it’s not fine, it can wait. Let’s enjoy and not think about it. Besides, she’s happy. Look at her.”

Everyone turned to the two-year-old sitting in a highchair at the end of the table. Her eyelids fluttered in her flat, peaceful face. There wasn’t any food on her plate, but her head was canted backwards, a sippy cup raised to her mouth.

“Very good, Dexlers. Training her to be an alcoholic.”

Phyllis smiled at Gregory indulgently. “I know. But she refuses to eat anything solid and she loves her sippy cup. I make her drinks in the blender. That way I’m sure she’s getting some nourishment.”

“So important,” Meredith agreed, seeing the land tumble down under the clouds, a sliver of moon rising. There were candles, platters of good things to eat, a bottle of chilled wine. Next to her, the child with the wide face gazed at the sky through secretive eyes. The liquid going into her mouth was purple.

“So what is it?” Meredith asked.

“Well, it’s a blend. Whatever I have. Right now, it’s tofu, peanut butter, blueberries, spinach, yeast, and soymilk. She likes it. Don’t you, Ava? You like your drink, don’t you?”

Hearing her name, the little girl put down her cup and looked at her grandmother.

“Ava, can you say drink?”


“Listen. Drrrr . . . . . ink.”

“Ddd . . . . . ink.”

“Good girl! And what is this?” Phyllis picked up an ear of corn.

Ava put the sippy cup to her mouth and tilted her head back.

“Ava, what is this?”

She stopped drinking and said, “coin.”

“And what is this? Ava, over here, what is this?” Phyllis pointed to her elbow. “You learned this word today, remember?”

Ava’s eyes lowered to her grandmother. “Bow,” she said.

“El . . . bow,” Phyllis corrected. “Ellllllbow.”

Ava returned to her cup.

“You know why she drinks her meals instead of eating them? It gives her a break from the constant vocabulary test. It’s really intense. Did we do that with our kids?”

They were driving home, their headlights pulling them through the dark, humming world. Just as they started the descent from the Dexlers’ hill, rain slanted across the road.

Gregory turned on the wipers. “I don’t think we did. Plus, it wasn’t like that then. There wasn’t that constant pressure. Kids could just be kids. They could learn at their own rate. And, remember, our kids weren’t Chinese.”

“They weren’t?”

“They were aliens, but not from China.”

In the valley, the rain was steady. “Shit,” Meredith said.

“What’s the problem?”

“Frogs. See them?”

Strings of fog hung in the twin cones of light and the shapes rising up off the country road might have been leaves blowing in the wind, but the two of them knew from experience that those were frogs. Gregory slowed down. Hundreds were taking advantage of the wet pavement to cross from the marsh on one side of the road to the marsh on the other, and a certain percentage were dying under their tires.

“Can’t you steer around them?”

“I’m trying.”

There were little frogs and big frogs, low jumpers and high jumpers. They’d flash in the beams for just a second, some going straight across, some going zigzag, some reaching their destination, others not. “I can’t stand it.”

“Really, Merry, I’m trying. I’m not hitting many at all.”

“How do you know? You can’t tell. They’re disappearing all over the world and this isn’t helping. I think you should pull over. I really do.”

“Right, and then another car will come along and squash them.”

“There are no other cars. No one’s on this road at ten thirty at night. Please. Stop.”

“It’s too late. We have to get back.”

“Just pull over and park.”

“By the way,” Dr. Zoot piped up from the back seat, “rain makes them horny.”

“Maybe,” Meredith said, ignoring the comment, “she likes the cup because it lets her suck. It’s comforting. After all, she’s lost two mothers. Maybe Phyllis took her off the bottle too soon.” Finally, Gregory was slowing down, moving to the shoulder.  “Thank you,” she said.

“Okay, but I just want you to know I have to be at the office at seven in the morning. And look at it. This rain could go on for hours.

“It’ll stop soon. I’m sure it will.” But really, she knew that they could sit there on the side of the road, eight miles from home, for half the night. The water hit the windshield with that sort of steadiness.

“This kind of weather? They get moist between the legs.” The Doctor was standing on the back seat, his oversized face thrust forward towards Gregory’s ear.

“I know, I know, but the fact of the matter is that I have to get up really early.”

“It must be so confusing,” Meredith said. “To feel finished with all of that and then have this tremendous responsibility dumped in your lap. It’s huge. It’s really huge.”

Gregory turned off the motor. “Love gets them through it. Or something. But I’m really tired. And I really need a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow I have a huge day.”

“Right. And the frogs too. They need to survive. Just think of all the ones we’re saving.”

Smoke wafted over their heads and a phlegmy voice said, “She wants it. Look, you did what she asked. Any idiotic thing like that, they’re grateful. So, make your move.” Zoot waved his cigar in Meredith’s direction. “Talk nice. Flatter her up.”

“We’ll do it tomorrow,” Gregory said. “We have to get home. I have to be at the office at six thirty.”

“You think she’s going to let you go? Trust me. Sit back! Relax! Forget tomorrow! She’s ready, I’m telling you. All you gotta do is kissy, kissy, a little tongue action.”

The rain drummed the metal rooftop steadily. The smell of wet earth permeated. Dr. Zoot disappeared and it was just the two of them.