Battle Dress Uniform
Step on a Crack
Battle Dress Uniform
Barbara stood in the hallway, struggling with her new haircut,
trying to uncontort a look that had definitely been a bad idea from the
start. She let her hairdresser talk her into the latest cut, one to
celebrate her newly acquired single status. It was amazing how people
could turn a disaster into a cause celebr, making her feel that a new coif
would suddenly launch a new life, full of promise and bright lights. All
of the girls at the shop gathered around her, just before the presentation
of the bill, cooing over the finished look--one side dramatically long;
the other, practically shaved. Barbara tilted her head in the mirror to
make the short side look longer. She had doubts on the way home, had
called her friend, Cori, the guru of divorce and financial settlements,
to pass judgment on the new look. "God, I look ridiculous," she said
Walking over to the refrigerator, she opened a bottle of mineral
water, poured the contents into one of her husband's Baccarat champagne
glasses. He loved name brands--the Movado watch, the Gucci luggage--loved
calling things by their labels. "Bring me the Burberry when you come out
to the car," he said one day, referring to the plaid umbrella they bought
on one of their shopping extravaganzas.
Sitting down, she looked at the skylight above the two-story
living room. He had built her the home of homes--another name brand in
the making. He studied drawings of the Bauhaus school and created a
modern, enamel-on-steel house with a conversation pit around the
fireplace. A Phillip Johnson look-alike. Her friends all oohed and aahed
over the walnut parquet floors, the silk canopy that hung from the
ceiling, the brown-tiled jacuzzi. She glanced up at a painting on the
wall, one that had been the cause of their meeting. Jim was staring at it
at the gallery when they met. He seemed so distinguished
looking--slightly gray, about ten years older than she. He spoke
affirmatively, like an expert, telling her that the work was one Robert
Motherwell's "Seaside," series, explaining that Robert Motherwell was
married to Helen Frankenthaller, whose painting hung on the adjacent wall.
The Motherwell was especially valuable because it was a signed, early
edition. It was there that he invited her for a drink, then to dinner,
launching them into a relationship.
At first she was enthralled with his shark-like instinct for
business, his acumen lending a kind of potency to their meetings. It felt
good to be around a man of such command, one who outwitted, out-maneuvered
his opponents. The men he outbid on a job became, in his words, "toast."
His deals were always his "killings," his proposals, deadly
projectiles--"boy I really fired one in there," he would guffaw over the
phone to his consortium of crafty partners. And so she phrased their
relationship as a kind of "merger of talents." At first he would have
none of it, being married and divorced some ten years previously. He had
children to educate, he explained to her then. But she always countered
with the positive--trying to impress upon him her value as a "permanent
partner," insisting that second marriages were a compromise anyway.
Finally, he married her.
But he was miserable. Somehow his wings were clipped and she, the
object of his affection, had done it. Her complaints became their
illegitimate children. After all, she promised him that he would like
marriage, that somehow in her infinite woman wisdom about "those things,"
she should make him love it. And he had done the thing she wanted--gone
and married her; now, it was her job to make things work out.
No matter how she tried, he always had a surprise she hadn't
counted on. Like their first married Christmas Eve together. He had it
all planned out, baited her with a question with a predictable answer.
"What are your plans for Christmas Eve?" he asked.
"My plans? What do you mean? I'm going to be with
you, of course."
"Well," he began, as if mulling over the choices, "why don't we
do this. You have your mother and father over on Christmas Eve, and I'll
just go over to Debbie's for an hour or two to open gifts with the kids.
Then I'll be back around eleven o'clock, and you can plan on anything you
want for Christmas Day."
"You mean," her voice quivered, "you're going over to your
ex-wife's house and open presents like one big, happy family?"
"Not like one big happy family," he said in a calm voice that made
her strident pitch seem unreasonable, "just kinda like we always do."
"But you're married now! It's not like it used to be. Oh God,"
she said. "I can just hear myself explaining to my mother and father that
you're at your other wife's house opening gifts, but it doesn't mean
anything because that's how you've always done things!"
At last he gave in to paroxysms of tears, gave up his traditional
present opening with the ex-wife and children; but she hadn't won. In the
end it only made him feel more trapped, more restricted; and so he began
hiding things from her. On Saturdays, their day to be together, he managed
to have a meeting with one of the men in his job crew. Once she spotted
his car at a local diner, and mentioned it to him. "Oh, I met Jim Devlin
for breakfast. We went over the plans for the job at the Knolls."
"Why didn't you have breakfast with me?" she asked, eyes filled
with tears, "or invite me to have breakfast with the two of you?"
"Barbara, it's business," his voice strained as if explaining the
obvious to an idiot. "It's not social." But the truth was, he trusted men
more than women. They were more reliable, more solid. "Women," he had
once told her, "had their eyeballs connected to their bladder. When
things get rough, they always opted out with tears."
It wasn't long after that he sat across from her at dinner one
evening and casually mentioned that "things" were just not working out and
that he needed a "little space" to think matters through. By "things" he
meant their whole marriage, and "space," distancing himself from all of
the wailing and pleading his first divorce told him would surely ensue.
He was taking only a few things--his Eames chair, his bed, the Motherwell.
"Let the pros sort things out," he said, delivering her into the hands of
his barracuda attorneys.
Immediately after his pronouncement, Barbara locked the Motherwell
in the trunk of her car, but that didn't stop him from leaving. "If
anything happens to that print," his voice trailed off, leaving the
unmentionable unmentioned. After he moved out with the chair, the bed
and just his clothes, she hung it on the wall again.
Now as she sat in the hallway examining her haircut and thinking
over the past months of haggling and extended retainer fees, the phone
rang. It was her attorney calling with the news, "Your husband's agreed
to give you the house and all the furnishings," her voice,
an elongated roll at the word all. "The only condition is that I deliver
the Motherwell at the closing, and you'll get the deed to the house and
the furnishings. Barbara knew Wahler smelled blood with the mention of
"He has tons of business assets, so giving me the house is no big
deal," Barbara said. "He just wants it because Motherwell's a famous
artist, another brand name added to the list."
"Let's let him have one little thing to save his pride," she said.
"Just remember that you drew the line. No reasonable
person could have put up with his shenanigans. Besides, his associates
will say he's penniless, just a dummy partner in the businesses."
"If I hadn't hidden the painting in the trunk of my car when he
moved out," Barbara blurted, "I wouldn't have had any power to bargain
"That's illegal anyway," Wahler asserted. "Both of you would have
had to declare all of your assets, and he could have made a fuss because
the artwork was purchased before you married."
"Whose side are you on, anyway?" Barbara spat into the phone.
"His assets are all hidden. Mine are naked! I won't agree unless he
gives me the Motherwell."
"That could be a very expensive battle,"
"How expensive?" Barbara asked, remembering the day she plunked
down a three thousand dollar retainer that was eaten up piranha-style by
phone calls and useless memos.
Wahler's voice lowered an octave," Fifteen to twenty thousand,"
she whispered in her best Marlena Dietrich voice. "But I know you're
smart enough to know when you've clearly won."
Well, I'll have to think about it," Barbara said.
"I wouldn't wait too long," she came back, "his offer is only good
for twenty-four hours, and so I scheduled a meeting in my office for two
"Twenty-four hours!" Barbara shrieked in exasperation. "This
isn't a stock option, for God's sake. It's a settlement. It's forever!"
Wahler always opted out at the point of hysteria, "I'm sorry. I
have another call waiting. You have my number. I'm sure you'll make the
right decision. Let me know by tomorrow morning."
The doorbell rang. Cori stood in the entrance way balanced on
lucite stilettos. She wore a yellow suit that fit like skin and pulled
her Donna Karan black cat sunglasses down over the bridge of her nose as
if inspecting a bad shipment of fruit from a third world country. "Well,"
she said, circling Barbara and sizing up her haircut, "that's a do that
can't be undone with anything short of napalm."
"I look ridiculous."
"Not ridiculous," Cori quipped. "Ridiculous is an embellishment
of your present state. I'd say you should have bought combat boots
instead of Ferragamo."
"Well I won't be buying Ferragamo anymore," Barbara sniffed.
"He's coming in for the kill now. If I agree to give him the Motherwell,"
she said gesturing toward the print on the wall, "he'll give me the house
and all the stuff that's in it. And Wahler is as bad as he is. Talking to
her is like standing next to a ringing cash register. Every time I
suggest fighting him, she reminds me that it will cost the national debt.
I've got twenty-four hours to surrender," she said, slumping down in the
"I never trusted anyone with two last names anyway," Cori said,
"and why the rush to settle all of a sudden? Something has to be going
on." She stood in front of the print examining the small, pristine
signature on the Motherwell. "Why would he make such a big deal out of a
painting, unless . . . unless this is worth a lot more than we imagine.
Maybe we could erase the signatures on the prints. They wouldn't be worth
much then," she chuckled.
"We can't do that," Barbara insisted. My attorney has to
"What does that mean?"
"It means she certifies that it is a Motherwell print. She'd
know if the signature was missing."
Listen, I've got an idea," Cori said. "Call Wahler, say you'll
meet with her tomorrow. You'll agree to deliver the print and finalize
the deal. And . . . " Cori emphasized, "in consideration for your acting
so quickly on this matter, he will pay your legal fees."
"They'll never agree."
"They'll agree," Cori insisted. "They can smell blood now. It
drives them to a kill frenzy. Wahler knows she can give him a big, fat
bill and get a lot more out of him than she can from you, poor deserted
housewife. They won't resist, believe me. In the meantime, we've got to
make you look formidable, commanding. I've got just the outfit. Saw it
in Neiman's this morning.
Later that afternoon, Barbara peered into the long mirror beside
her bedroom dresser, wearing the latest silk fatigues, a post-modernist
Che Gueverra look, the long side of her hairdo swept into a BDU cap. As
she clipped a cartridge belt around her waist that held fake cylinders of
lipstick, she was surprised by how beautiful she looked in the outfit.
Somehow her appearance seemed appropriate, comfortable, and she wanted to
reach out and put her arms around the person in the mirror. All of a
sudden, the word "beauty" took on a different meaning--that she was who
she was, the core of her, the perfect center; and the world of the Jims
and the Wahlers were who they were. It wasn't the value of the picture
that mattered anymore, it was not giving in, not being demoralized by the
divorce. Fighting back was all that counted now.
At two o'clock the next afternoon, Barbara strolled into Wahler's
office, carrying the infamous print. She placed it on the mahogany desk.
"Oh, do you like this?" she said, turning in all directions so Wahler
could inspect her gear. "I just got it this morning at Neiman's. It's the
rage. What do you think?"
"It's, ah . . . very chic, indeed," Wahler, said.
Barbara took out a plastic Beretta revolver from
underneath her Alice Belt. "This thing is part of the outfit, but it gets
stuck around my waist when I sit." She put it near her on the table and
"I just have to deliver the print down the hall to Jim's
attorney," she said, casting a wary eye at the revolver as she buzzed for
a secretary who whisked the print away. She passed the deed to the house
across her desk. "If you'll just sign there, that will finalize
everything. Then, you can be on your way."
"I didn't bring a pen," Barbara said.
"Here, use mine," Wahler ventured, reaching into her desk and
pulling out a fat black pen trimmed in gold. "It's my most prized
possession," she said. "The Bar Association gave it to me as a merit
award last year. It's a Mont Blanc." She grinned, her eyes taking on a
strange downward slant that looked like the fox' peering out from under
the old woman's cap in Little Red Riding Hood. Her voice turned
candy-sweet, "I actually didn't know all of the fine
details until the last minute. Apparently, he is selling the Motherwell
and a Frankenthaller he owns to an auctioneer who wanted the husband and
wife companion pieces. But I knew you wanted out and that you'd gotten
everything you wanted. I mean, we were so
close, it seemed pointless to argue any further."
Suddenly it became clear that Wahler had probably known the value
of the painting all along, had been part of the plan to coerce her into
agreement. Barbara signed the papers and stood to leave, folding the
papers into her carbine pouch just as the intercom buzzed. She pressed a
button and a voice sounded from the speaker, "Mr. Goldstock on the line."
She picked up the phone, and Barbara heard an angry, raised voice
on the other end. "What do you mean the signature's not authentic?" Wahler asked, incredulous. "Doesn't it say Robert
Motherwell at the bottom of the print?" she shrieked, in an octave that
would summon the dogs in the neighborhood.
"Mother-what?" she screeched.
"I guess that's all I need," Barbara said, heading for the door.
"I'll just let the pros sort things out."
Step on a Crack
by Marilyn Bates
Across the parking lot, half-broken acorns scab the tarmac. She
steps out of her car looking for bare spots, but there are none. Making
her way toward the entrance to the building, she thinks of the acorns as
knobs of his spine, cracked into irreducible bits beneath the lizard skin
boots she wears. Maybe she can make the energy hold for the entire day,
his last, frank admission that well, no, he never thought of coming back,
still stinging her ears.
Two fat acorns snap, like his eyes popping from their sockets,
reminding her of olives she once squeezed the pimento out of, leaving a
plate of little red tongues to wag about the party she gave that didn't go
well. If only she could think of him as debris of some sort--the stubbed
out cigarettes ground into the grout of the mosaic ash tray they bought in
Spain, the petulant face of the Naked Maja obliterated by ground-in soot.
Gone down the disposal in one swell of water and grinding blades, all of
his pontifications at the party about crafty business deals, ones he
entrusted only to men friends.
A pair of acorns joined on a fallen twig just waited for her heel
as if she were stepping into his crotch for all the times he dangled the
promise of children then pulled back spewing out a list of objective
reasons why he couldn't, just couldn't see it working out. She felt
plucked dry, an egg debrided of its yolk. Suddenly a bolus of shells
skitters across the asphalt, like phalanges of his feet, crushed in one
fell swoop of her step, as she remembers the haughty way he capped his
feet with Gucci's, as if his accoutrements spoke of him--the briefcase
with the brass hasps, the Mont Blanc pen he wielded in an illegible scrawl
across contracts, outwitting his competitors.
How she loved it when he left the shoes behind in his haste,
loading them onto the dumpster along with the rest of the summer rot--a
crush of fallen crabapples, fat hornets beating their wings for one more
suckle of juice. Flowers nipped by frost then heated in the day's sun,
collapsed into one gelatinous mass, where the shoes rested. Rain filled
their leather insoles, arching their cracked backs until the garbage men
finally came and carted it all away.
As she approaches the door, a horse chestnut's swag of buckeye
awaits her rage. She fills her fist, hurling them against the stucco wall
of the building, their yellow insides pockmarking the pristine wall.
Just inside the glass doors, a row of craggy cactus droops in the heat of
the hallway. Their impotent spines no longer hold a sting.
Through the oak archways, the attorneys are waiting--his and hers.
She sees him at a table at the end of the hallway as she nears the room,
her eye a camera, the aperture enlarging with each step as he comes into
focus, his cool sandpaper jaw- line tilted at the yellow legal pad. After
amenities and low-voiced introductions, she sits down at the table, an
acorn hidden in her palm. She feels it crack under the force of her