Marge Brinkle

Staying on topic, we might follow Gary through the rest of his day. But let’s spare ourselves that. He got a hold of Alice only in the evening. Much to his relief, she said that nothing had had happened during the night and that they were out well before Gary’s call. You could hear that she was feeling like this whole episode had been a misunderstanding, now that the physical evidence had left her apartment and another day had passed. Time has a way of creating apparent discontinuities like that — less inconsistencies than patterns we cannot recognize, with the few data points any of the rest of us are privy to. In her newfound self-assurance, she offered: “Maybe I over-reacted.” Meaning also, what is all this mystery you’re trying to peddle?

“Maybe,” Gary said, “but I still would like to tell you about the things I’ve got from a friend of mine” — hesitant to name him over the phone — “who works at Some College Somewhere.”

“What is his field?” she asked, suddenly in a different register. He could hear that his evocation of authority did not go over well.

“Well, he does a lot of stuff, but he works in the English department.” The silence on the other end was filled in by Gary: and this is your source?

“I’ve also contacted a friend of mine in Physics at my alma mater, and he’s come up with some intriguing ideas.”

“Well,” Alice said with some finality, “it can’t be tonight.”

Gary was suspicious and found himself half-mouthing, Why not? He could imagine any number of reasons, the innocuous ones we might all imagine, but he zeroed in on the most troubling to him. He could feel a jealous queasiness at the tiptop of his stomach.

“Okay, sure. No problem.” He wasn’t sure how he could extract a promise from her, but it seemed worth trying: “Alice, my friends recommend that you listen to what they have to say before you talk to anyone about what happened.”

Again an accusatory silence. “Andrew and I will both be curious to hear what they say.” A pause. “But not tonight.” Gary recognized that that emphasis was intended to preclude a “I was worried” or “I just had to unburden myself” quick stop by her door. Of course, because it was indirect, Gary could decide to ignore it — at his peril. She still held the door-slam card as answer, and a door in his face now would unquestionably be forever.

But Gary was not without ideas on how to break this wall of silence. He decided to call a mutual acquaintance from the church, Marge Brinkle, and wheedle what he could out of her. This was manifestly a desperate act, something like putting your hand over a stove burner to ascertain whether it will boil water. Marge was a woman that Gary had found himself loathing time and again, from the very bottom of his viscera, a duplicitous, feigning, essentially evil woman, who thought nothing of condemning another’s eternal soul for the slightest of slights, while still smiling into her face. Gary called her a “piece of work” in his mind in order to forestall an invective-laced condemnation slipping loose among his fellow parishioners.

In addition to her almost comical faults of self-absorption and spite, she had a preternatural ability to absorb gossip. Gary had a special aversion to gossip, perhaps for understandable reasons, and that aversion found form in the larger- than-life shape of Mrs. Binkle, tall and big torsoed, though stooped, with a longshoreman’s shape. She accepted the addiction and had grown to relish what happened to her anger lines and sharp eyes while gossiping. You could even say that she appeared playful and lighthearted, and she could be seen chumming up to anyone, and then finally conspiring with them, as if she were deep in a drug deal or relating her instructions to some underworld flunkies. “Oh, child,” she might say, smiling and patting someone on the knee — someone neither child- aged nor appreciative — or she would cluck her tongue and shake her head with compassion and derision for a world that was either too judgmental or not judgmental enough, or just too disinterested. “Now that’s a story,” she would say, “that is a story that deserves to be told.”

As her husband fell into senility, he became the regular target for her ire, as if his retreating wit was an insult upon her person rather than his. “Oh Alfred, I wish you would listen more carefully,” she would say sharply, like a parent continually on the edge of losing her patience with a difficult child. He would smile in partial embarrassment for his inability to respond — and likely in recognition that there were a few small blessings in losing one’s sense of presence. He shuffled along behind her imposing shape, just as Gary imagined a lifelong prisoner might trail his jailer at the imminent and brutal end of his imprisonment. She meanwhile would slow with a huff but without looking around when she sensed that her burden had fallen too far behind. “Oh come on, Gary,” Bluthe might say at the sight, “you see just the outcropping; both the real injustice and the real bond lie well beneath the surface.”

Marge, then. She would get a story in his phone call itself, but for Gary the emotional calculation that still came out in the positive. The only important variable was Alice, and she was not likely to hear about his call from Marge, and Alice so disliked gossip herself that she was unlikely to let herself be drawn into the matter. Marge. He dialed the number that he found in an old church directory. Disconnected. Interesting. That would imply, with the Binkles’ advanced age, a change into a more managed living situation. It would probably be difficult to find her, or possibly even to talk with her. That set him back for a while. He did an online Whitepages search locally, and then in a few (other?) sunbelt locations that were more favored by the retired class. A match came up on her husband’s name — and cross referenced, a M. Brinkle showed up, too, albeit without address. Still, the odds seemed in his favor. The only question was whether it was worth the emotional energy to contact this person, when she might have lost all contact with the church and would have all the more reason to marvel at his call.

He dialed after settling on the most straightforward approach. The phone rang two times before someone picked up and sent a thundering but still fundamentally bored and irritated “Hello” down the virtual pipe. That was her.

“Mrs. Binkle, I know you won’t recognize my voice. This is Gary Corinth. You and I were fellow parishioners in the Church of That Ascension Stuff a couple years ago.” A pause followed, into which she by custom should send at least a grunt of recognition or acceptance, but nothing came. “Do I have the right Marge Binkle?”

“Mmmm,” she said in an effort to protect her identity. It meant, of course, that she was the right one, but she was reserving the space in which to deny her identity, should the caller become too burdensome.

“Marge, I don’t know if you can picture me, but we met several times. I won’t beat around the bush: the reason I’m calling is because of my concern for Alice Philips. You’ll recall, I think, that Alice and I were friends for a time before I had to relocate” — a gray lie that she would recognize but not likely contradict — “and since I’ve been back, I’ve been concerned about her behavior. Someone suggested that I contact you because they know of your concern for members of the church.”

She was no doubt rattling off in her mind the contradictions in his brief opening, but at the same time he imagined her mind sucking at the silence, trying to pull the words out of him that would reveal his real reason for calling, a reason that would allow her to devastate him with a crushing revelation or, should she actually know nothing, cut him off like the dry, dead branch he was.

“Gary, you said?” she said finally. “I am beginning to remember a Gary. Older gentleman, bachelor, very little religious experience, not exactly a typical member of our community.”

“You’ve got me, Marge.”

“And let’s see,” she said, starting to warm to the subject. “Alice. Long-time member of our church, single mother, raising a well-mannered little boy. A beautiful woman with a gentle charm, though she has her austere side.” She paused to let her connoisseurship sink in. “Alice and I have a longstanding friendship, you see, and I am always concerned when a friend such as she experiences hurt or sorrow.”

“It was never my intention,” Gary said, following his part of the script, “to hurt Alice in any way. I only wish that she had seen that.”

“I see,” said Marge: You were at fault. Interesting. “Now, what did you say is disturbing you?”

“Well,” he said, breathing deeply as he began. “She and I didn’t keep in touch during my relocation, and now that I’m back, more or less, I would like to be friends at least. But as it turns out, she is not interested in resuming our friendship at all. I wonder if I might have deeply offended her in some way, or if she’s afraid that I might just cut off contact again, or” — the crux is coming, she could tell — “if there’s maybe some other reason that she might not be interested in a friendship.”

“I see,” said Marge. Dull-witted attempt at finding that out, she thought, but an interesting act of desperation. Not bad. “Well, Gary, you shouldn’t fret about having offended her” — now Gary’s chance to recognize ignorance — “but sometimes a woman needs to move on. And, sweetheart, Alice has moved on. You should, too, dear. I want to believe that the right girl is out there, waiting to meet you.”

Ha, thought Gary. “Thanks, Marge. But what do you mean ‘needs to move on’? Do you mean that she has, has, a male friend, and that our friendship would be awkward?”

“Well, Gary,” she replied, knowing that this rube act was not the real thing. She realized that there was more — and less — to Gary than she had thought. It was too bad she’d never taken the time to find out more; there might have been real value in that. But as things were, he was just wasting her time, and it was high time to end this. “Yes, she has a friend, a fianc?n fact, and I don’t think that your friendship fits in her future.”

“Wow,” said Gary, very much taken aback, because he knew that this was no bluff. A feeling rose suddenly in him that he had squandered something deep and rich, as if he had been homesteading on a future diamond mine; it rose in him like a chemical wave, a wave of adrenaline and other lymphatic secretions that prepared his body for an outpouring of disappointment, grief and envy. “Wow.” Finally he had the wherewithal to ask: “Who is her fianc?Someone from the church?”

Marge smiled into her handset, feeling the triumph of the moment. “Why, yes, it is. Someone you would know, and I’m sure you’ll want to congratulate him the next time you see him. I’m surprised you haven’t heard it from him directly, since you’ve been attending service again. It’s Reggie Valerio.”

What the fuck!, thought Gary with a powerful shot of shock run up his backbone and across his cheeks. That’s just fucking impossible. She would never be with a shyster like that, an obvious con artist, a slippery ladies man. Never. “Thanks, Marge, I will. Goodbye.” He hung up and stared at the phone for a minute or two or ten. No way, she would never be with that bum. There’s not a chance in hell, even in Marge’s personal hell.

No chance, he concluded finally — even if, he had to admit, she had spent weeks dating a man who was on a mission to prove Dear Abby both right and wrong. It simply had to be true that she could see the difference between Gary and Reggie. Even if he was black.