A Short Story
By Rawlins McKinney
Seated next to her twin sister on a banquette at the Magnolia Grille, Mary Willie casually, almost flippantly, dropped the name of her latest married lover. They were celebrating their sixty-eighth birthday. Flossie did not appear to be surprised but the look of disgust on her face was evident to her husband, Richard, as he focused his camera on the two birthday girls. Richard flushed but managed to hold the camera steady as he clicked the shutter.
Richard had escorted the two women to the restaurant in midtown Manhattan, thinking it to be an appropriate venue for the two Alabama expatriates’ birthday dinner. The proprietor himself was another refugee from the south, a Greek who had fled his family’s restaurants in Birmingham forty years ago. It had been a mellow evening until Mary Willie’s revelation.
Mary Willie’s thin face was partially covered on the left side by a veil that dropped down from a black velvet beret. The veil covered a cut that crossed her high cheekbone, a souvenir of an interrupted liaison ten days ago. A suspicious wife left a performance of ‘Carmen’ at intermission and found Mary Willie riding her husband on the living room floor. An ashtray caught Mary Willie in mid-whoop.
‘Richard, dear, I do believe Flossie is thinking bad thoughts about me again. I don’t believe she approves of my new friend.’
Flossie shook her head and took a sip of champagne. ‘As if you give a damn about my approval. Or anybody else’s for that matter.’
Richard said, ‘My God, Mary Willie, you’ve barely stopped bleeding from your last adventure. I do believe that ashtray sliced more than your skin. You act like you have brain damage.’
Flossie slid out of her seat. ‘I’m going to the ladies room.’
As soon as Flossie had gone, Richard leaned over the table and whispered, ‘You bitch.’
‘Oh, Richard, I love it when you talk dirty to me.’ Richard’s expression didn’t change. ‘Richard, Richard. I know what’s bothering you. You’re going to miss your turn this time. Well, I’m sorry, but old age does have its drawbacks. I just don’t have the luxury of a recovery time anymore.’
‘What about me, Mary Willie? My feelings.’
‘Yes, my feelings. I do have feelings. Or do you think I’m just a flesh and blood dildo? A free gigolo?’
‘Richard, that’s an awful thing to say. You’re too sweet to be talking like that. I don’t know what I would have done without you, all those times you helped me through.’
All those times that Richard helped Mary Willie through were the interludes between her old and new lovers. The first time it happened was a Saturday afternoon in 1968. He had dropped by his sister-in-law’s apartment on East 85th to return a diamond pendant that Flossie had borrowed for a Met benefit earlier in the week. Mary Willie was crying when she opened her door. Richard responded with what he intended to be a comforting, brotherly hug. She thrust herself against him and gave him a one-minute opened-mouth kiss. They never made to the bedroom; instead they fumbled through zippers and buttons and collapsed together on the closest soft surface, the shag carpet in the living room.
Richard’s post-coital remorse was instant. He tried to get up but Mary Willie’s legs and arms had him in a vise grip. ‘Not so fast, big boy. We’re just getting started.’
‘No, Mary Willie. We’re not getting started. What the hell have we just done?’ He struggled but still couldn’t free himself.
Mary Willie flicked his ear with her tongue and whispered, ‘We’ve just had fantastic sex, that’s what we’ve done. Fantastic sex. That’s all.’
Richard’s nose was buried in the musty carpet. Mary Willie’s tongue got bolder. The dust and the tickling in his ear got the best of him. He sneezed.
‘Whoo! That’s some trick. I bet Flossie loves that.’
Mary Willie relaxed for a second and Richard managed to extricate himself. He sat up and tried to find his boxer shorts. They were under the coffee table. He crawled over to them and stood up to slip them on. Mary Willie, all six feet of her, still lay sprawled on the carpet. Richard picked up her dress and threw it to her. ‘Please cover yourself. We have to talk.’
Mary Willie didn’t move. ‘Talk. I can hear you just fine. Toss me my cigarettes, please. They’re on the coffee table.’
Richard threw the Phillip Morris pack and book matches. She pulled one out and lit it, still lying on her back. When Richard said ‘Flossie is going to kill us both when she finds out about this,” she jumped up. ‘Richard, you sit down. I’ll be right back.’
When Mary Willie left the room Richard took advantage of her absence to put his trousers and shirt on. When Mary Willie returned she had on a silk robe. She sat down next to Richard, took a draw from her cigarette and stared at him as she exhaled.
‘Richard, dear, dear Richard. Have you never cheated on Flossie?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Dear God, I have a novice on my hands. Look, Flossie is not going to find out about this. We just had sex, damn good sex, but we didn’t make love. That makes it really quite simple.’
‘Let’s see now. I just screwed my wife’s sister. Or to put it another way, you screwed your sister’s husband. That’s simple?’
‘You’re missing the point, Richard. It’s not who’s screwing who, or whom, I guess I should say. This has nothing to do with Flossie. You love her, don’t you?’
‘And so do I. Just put our little secret in a separate box. Our lives outside that box goes on as usual. So you see, dear Richard, I’m not about to complicate your life by trying to steal you from Flossie. Or my life either. Look, it’s the sixties. Lovers are a dime a dozen. I’ve spent a few dimes already in my life and I’m looking to spend a lot more. So I don’t want you as a lover. Let’s just call you my special friend.’
Richard thought he saw where she was going. He was intrigued. ‘Go on. Tell me the difference between a lover and a special friend.’
Mary Willie smiled. ‘Love affairs are so complicated. Especially with married men. And predictable. First you can’t stand to be apart, but you have no choice. He promises to leave his wife as soon as, and you fill in the blank here: the children get a little older, as soon as he starts making a little more money, and so on. Of course he never does. Pretty soon all the sneaking around gets tiresome, the fear of getting caught outweighs the pleasures of your bedroom. Then one day he tells you he really loves little wifey, so he breaks it off, leaving you alone and crying as you found me today. But that’s OK, there’s always another one just over the horizon. But in the meantime, a special friend can be very comforting. And you’re going to be my special friend, Richard.’
Flossie looked in the powder room mirror and saw a dumpy old lady. A dull, dumpy old lady. The good sister. The good sister in the shadow of the wild one. For all their lives.
Her only moment of wildness was when she eloped with the handsome young lieutenant from New York fifty years ago. She had just graduated from high school and Richard was stationed at the Army base just outside their small southeast Alabama town. Normally the girls in the twins’ social circle were forbidden to even speak to soldiers from Camp Harris. But Richard was an exception. He was an officer, and his father had been the roommate of the local newspaper owner while they were students at Columbia. He was a welcome guest at the Smyrna Country Club dances.
Actually Flossie’s one moment of wildness could be construed as an act of virtue. Unlike Mary Willie, Flossie was still a virgin. Unwilling to ignore the Bible Belt edict of no sex before marriage, she told Richard that the only way he could bed her was to marry her. They drove over to Georgia one evening and returned the next day as newlyweds.
She had a good life with Richard. Dull, but good. Fitting enough for the good, but dull, sister. Good old Richard. She knew she should be grateful. She never doubted his faithfulness. When Richard rang the doorbell for his first official date with Flossie, Mary Willie had been the one who opened the door. Richard had told her later that when he introduced himself he had offered his hand but Mary Willie had brushed it aside and had given him a hug. Not the polite southern greeting hug that he still wasn’t used to but an intimate, lingering embrace. Richard stepped back and said, ‘Enough of that. Please tell your sister I’m waiting out here on the porch.’
On the way to the country club Richard told her what had happened. Flossie’s initial anger at her sister was quickly replaced by a good feeling about Richard. This wasn’t the first time Mary Willie had made a pass at a boy Flossie was seeing. But it was the first time that she had been rebuffed so strongly. Richard could be a keeper.
And it turned out that he was. Here she was in New York with their 50th anniversary a few weeks away. Fifty years of a good, but as much as hated to admit it, uneventful, life. Even though her sister’s promiscuity and fast living disgusted and embarrassed her, she couldn’t help but wonder about what she had missed by being the good sister.
Flossie left the powder room and made a detour to the bar on the way back to Richard and Mary Willie. She felt a headache coming on. ‘A glass of ice water, please.’ She fumbled in her purse for the small bottle of ibuprofen she kept in her purse.
A female voice asked, ‘Is that Mary Willie’s new lover boy?’ Flossie turned to her left and saw a fifty-ish blond sitting at the bar, her back to Flossie. Her companion, seated on the other side, had asked the question.
‘No, no, sweetie. Not that old fart. He’s her brother-in-law. Who also happens to be what she calls her special friend. Her temporary roll in the hay. Can you believe that bitch? She screws her twin sister’s husband until she hooks up with something better.’
‘Go on. You’ve got to be kidding.’
‘I swear I’m not. She’s been doing it for years and years. The old fellow is apparently satisfied with the arrangement. I guess it puts a little spice in his life from time to time.’
‘Spice? Cheating on your wife with a woman that looks like your wife? I don’t see any spice in that arrangement. Sounds a little perverted to me.’
‘Oh no, dear. They aren’t identical. She’s a little froggy thing. A squatty body. So it must be a real treat for Richard to get tangled up in Mary Willie’s long limbs.’
‘Cassandra, there’s something wrong with that woman behind you.’ The blonde turned just in time to see Flossie sink to the floor. ‘My God! It’s Flossie Thomas. Dammit, god dammit!’
The two women watched as a waiter rushed over to Flossie. Cassandra swiveled on her barstool and put her head on the bar. Her companion said, ‘You know her?’
Without lifting her head, Cassandra asked, ‘How long has she been standing behind me? Please tell me she just walked up.’
‘She’s been there a couple of minutes.’
‘Long enough to hear our conversation about Mary Willie?’
‘Oh, yes. In fact she looked like she was eavesdropping.’
Cassandra lifted her head. ‘She’s Mary Willie’s twin sister.’
Flossie’s knees had buckled but she was conscious as she crumpled to the floor. She assured the waiter that she was fine. ‘Just help me up, please.’
‘Don’t you want to sit there a minute while I get you some water?’
‘I don’t need anymore water. Help me up.’
Flossie stood for a moment after the waiter pulled her up. ‘I’m fine.’ She walked slowly past the two women. ‘Hello, Cassandra. I haven’t seen you in a while.’ Cassandra stared over the bar and said nothing.
Richard and Mary Willie appeared agitated when she returned to the dining room. She stood over them and put her hand to her forehead. ‘I’m afraid the party’s over for me. My head is killing me. Could you get our waiter to cancel my order, Richard, dear? I’m going home.’
‘Are you feeling that bad? I’ll cancel mine, too.’
‘No, I don’t want to spoil the party for you and Mary Willie. After all, you have been her special friend for a long time now. Keep your seat, dear. The doorman can flag down a cab for me. Enjoy the rest of your evening.’
She stepped into the cab and smiled at the driver. ‘Caf’ Carlyle, please. I want to catch Bobby Short’s last set. Do you think he’ll sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me?’
The cabbie returned the smile. ‘For a good looking lady like you? You bet he will. Happy birthday.’