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Today's Story by Cary Tennis

I think my husband here was a high-fashion model in a past life, in Paris in the 20s.

Look at Murphy

The thing I love about my family is how well-adjusted we all are. You see some of these families that have alcoholism and drug addiction and just plain strangeness in them. You ever go in one of those houses where you just know something is not right? You ring the bell and you see the mom has, like, smeared lipstick across half her mouth and her dress is askew and it’s not her husband there, it’s this neighbor guy with the loud car, and he’s got a large crescent wrench in one hand and a whole chicken in the other and he’s just leaving, and he puts the chicken on the table and goes past you as you’re doing your pitch for Ladies Home Journal — and also Boys Life for the kids — and then you notice the husband asleep on the lawn some mornings and you figure that family is not like yours.

That’s what I love about my family. There’s five of us kids and each one of us knew what we wanted to do from the earliest age. My oldest brother went into dad’s accounting business. My sister, next in line, married a former fullback for the Atlanta Falcons and has a floral arranging business in Marietta. I’m right smack dab in the middle. I’ve been happily employed by Martin Marietta Aerospace for 26 years now, I’ve got three kids, one already in dentistry school and the other two just about to graduate, one in pre-med and the other in law. We’ve got this great, leafy-green front yard with a green lawn and a big old-fashioned mailbox and, believe it or not, a white picket fence running all around the house.

So I’m comfortable. That’s the thing people have always said about me, whatever else they might think about my stance on fiscal issues and my Episcopalian faith — my wife is Catholic, that’s about as radical as I’ll get. I exude comfort in my own skin. That’s me. I enjoy an occasional beer out at a game but don’t have much of a taste for alcohol otherwise. Who needs it? When the sun’s out on the inside, who needs artificial stimulants? I can’t imagine being any happier than I am.

So it came as a bit of a shock recently when I found myself looking through my wife’s closet — I was looking for my tennis racket, which I sometimes would store in there — and I found a pair of her panties and a camisole on the floor and, well, best as I can describe it, I didn’t do anything at the time, but I noticed them. You know what I mean, when you notice something more than you usually would, and don’t think anything about it except the next time you notice it again, or even with more, well, I wouldn’t call it intensity, but perhaps clarity.

But anyway, I found my tennis racket and played a pretty good game of doubles with the Murphys down the street and then we went for a steak dinner afterwards at the clubhouse and Gene Murphy, who always struck me as a little odd, I mean, he’s an accountant, which is OK, but for a firm that specializes in entertainment, which is a business I’ve never known much about and which doesn’t really excite me, except to say that it’s a kind of field I would want my kids to steer clear of, anyway Gene is going on the way he sometimes does, all wide-eyed, about a certain well-known singer whose taxes he’s doing, and how this singer is taking certain business deductions for massage and psychotherapy, and travel to some resort up in Canada where they indulge in what they call past-life regression. And he’s concerned about what will be deductible and what won’t be. But he tells us, Gene Murphy does, that while it may not be deductible, strictly speaking, he himself has some sympathy with the view that past lives can be contacted, or reconstructed, through certain methods. He’s a red-faced guy even when he hasn’t had a beer, but he’s all lit up now after winning 6-3, 6-0, 6-4, which I don’t mind, I don’t mind losing a few sets, I know my lifetime average I’m on the winning side, and that keeps me in a sunny disposition. So Murphy says, “Yes, I know it sounds strange, but I believe, really, that I was, in a past life, a streetwalking whore in 16th-century London.”

I nearly spit out my ginger ale. I said to Betty, I think I left the dahlias in the car, and excused myself. I felt a little ill in the parking lot. Picturing Gene Murphy as a London streetwalker just did something to me. I figured I’d drop in on Father Harry later and just try to calm down. But I had to come back, so when I walk back in everybody’s in stitches over something Gene said about Boswell or some such, and I tried to slide back into my chair like nothing had really occurred, and I changed the subject to a new line of golf clubs I was considering purchasing with my expected bonus. But Betty’s all intrigued now about this past-life business, and Gene says, Oh, it’s nothing, but if you like I’ll put you in touch with this singer. Oh, he’s a crazy one, he says.

A crazy one, can you believe that? So I give my wife this kind of look that I have that I give her from time to time, but she just goes on playing the innocent with Gene Murphy and this crazy idea, like she doesn’t see me, and then she says, and I kid you not, “Well, I think my husband here was a high-fashion model in a past life, in Paris in the 20s.”

“Waiter,” I say, “Bring me a scotch and water.”

So, curiously — though in a way it wasn’t all that surprising since I’m not a talkative sort when it comes to things in the theoretical realm — I couldn’t speak at all for the next few minutes. It was almost as if I’d been paralyzed by a dart from a blowgun shot by a scantily clad warrior from the Amazon, or some such thing. So my wife launches into this absurd tale about how she’s been having dreams in which I, her utterly normal husband who’s worked in engineering at Martin Marietta for 26 years, am actually strutting the runways of Paris in various very ruffly and colorful high-fashion costumes. And I can see that old Murphy is snickering at this. He seems to find it very amusing. So I challenge him. I say, Look, Murphy old boy, you seem to find this pretty amusing. Maybe you find it a little too amusing. Know what I mean? What do you say to a little friendly competition?

So that’s how it came to pass that Murphy and me raided our wives’ stashes of lingerie and ended up giving this show, which wasn’t supposed to be at all public, it was just supposed to be me and Murphy with our wives doing the judging. But then the kids got involved. You know how wives are with kids. Always getting them involved.

So … being an engineer with 26 years experience one thing I know is planning. I’ve done plenty of sales presentations and first and foremost you need lighting. So let me tell you I’d done my homework. There was lighting and a stage and a runway, and, well, you know how kids are too, next to wives, they’re the most talkative, so word gets around the dentistry school and the other schools the kids attend and so pretty much by then we’ve got cars pulling up and a crowd gathers. Now, I’ve done pretty well in life and have a fair-size great room, and even with the stage and runway me and Murphy rolled up our sleeves and built ourselves — I had to help him along in the hammering department but he got the gist of it — there was still room for maybe 50 people. Like I say, I’ve been fortunate in life to have a good-sized great room.

Now, Murphy huffed and puffed about how he wasn’t planning on a crowd, but I figure anything worth doing is worth doing for an audience, you know, nothing to hide, just a little friendly competition.

So we flipped a coin like in the NFL and Murphy won and elected to receive, that is, go on offense, so the first outfit he chooses is this weird leather and latex number, and I’m thinking, how did he even find that in his wife’s closet? I know there’s nothing in there like that because I’ve done a good bit of friendly-neighbor pawing around in there myself when they’ve had us over and I’ve had to go upstairs to use the john. I never saw anything like that in there.

But anyway, the point of all this is, that you never know. You just never know. And Murphy, in fact, though I did my best, and though I can still beat him in tennis, Murphy won the popular vote and I had to pay him $50. Which I did promptly after the event, in cash. And who called the police and why I’ll never know, because I’m fairly certain you don’t need a cabaret permit for a private party. I could go into all the things that happened after that, but let’s just say life throws you curveballs and you do your best to catch them. I was only doing what I thought was right, but people seem to get overly upset when they find a man in the wife’s closet, going through her things. I do understand that, now, now that it’s been explained to me. In my mind, it was all a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, but even with the best lawyer I ended up doing a little time over it, which really ruffled the family feathers, believe you me, but prison wasn’t anything like they make it out to be, not if you watch your P’s and Q’s and use a little politeness.

I never had any trouble there at all. In fact, looking back on it, I think I learned a thing or two.

One thing I learned is you just never know. You think you do, but not really. Like my boss at Martin Marietta, a good Episcopalian like me. What did he do the minute word got out? Well, he let me go. A little sheepish, I’d say Andy was. Sheepish. But still. They let me go, which did not seem very Episcopalian to me. Not at all.

But look on the bright side. That’s what’s gotten me through the unemployment and the disapproving looks I get at Whole Foods, the murmurs of disapproval you hear in the neighborhood and so forth, and all the awkwardness at the company and even in church, which I continue to attend regularly.

Like I say, look on the bright side. Things could be worse. You just never know.

I mean, look at Murphy for heaven’s sake. Just look at Murphy!


Cary Tennis is the advice columnist for Salon.com

Read more stories by Cary Tennis


This piece was read as part of the inagural production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.  Other pieces in the series include:

Die Brizl, by Scott Lambridis

The Fix, by Benjamin Wachs

The Rape Parade, by Carolyn Cooke

Sculpture Garden, by Ben Black


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