Old timers, like those that have been here from the beginning, will have read this before on MND. It never made it here. It is a piece of fiction I wrote years ago that I recently took off the shelf, dusted off, and did some touch up work on. As I said when this first went out, it is based on a true story. Actually, it is based on too many of them. PE
Tobi Pitts leaned forward in her seat, clasping her hands together with her forearms resting on her knees. She looked at Howard with tired green eyes that were sunken into a patchwork of premature wrinkles and thin make-up. Her hair was a mass of bleached, neglected curls that hung by the sides of her face like twists of tattered rope.
“I can’t make you say a word, Mr. Franks, and I understand why you may not want to,” she said. “But the court did order you to come here, and I do think it’s in your best interest to talk about why that happened.”
Howard scanned the room. There were eight other men in the circle. Eight strangers, presumably with eight stories of their own, none of which he wanted to hear. Some were watching him, like Tobi, with eyes that pried and speculated, as though waiting for facts to weigh and judge. Others seemed determined not to look at him, not out of courtesy, but out of a kind of pity; the way you don’t look at someone with a deformity or a hideous facial scar. He looked back at Tobi and found her unblinking gaze still on him, patient as alabaster. He drew a breath and locked eyes with her for a moment.
“I see,” he said. “My best interest.” And then he allowed the room to sink back into silence. Tobi kept watching him.
One man, three seats to Howard’s left, cleared his throat and adjusted his tie. He had the meticulous look of a newscaster, complete with the chiseled, aristocratic profile of a graciously aging Adonis. His hair was a highly styled crown of silver-gray perfection that looked as though it had never felt the wind. He regarded Howard from behind a pair of designer glasses that were polished to a sparkle, even in the soft light of the room.
“Howard,” he said, clearly stepping in to end the standoff, “My name is Rob Watson. Believe you me I feel for you. I didn’t want to talk when I got here, either.”
“Most of us didn’t,” he said, making a slight sweeping gesture at the rest of the men. “But once I got over that I learned a great deal, and it really helped. And it turned out I really needed some help.”
Watson paused, as though offering Howard a chance to speak.
“Anyway, one of the things I learned about was why I ended up here. I gave my wife so many beatings I couldn’t even begin to count them. I knew it was wrong, but that didn’t stop me. I used to blame the drinking. In here, I learned where it was really coming from. I was addicted to power. I was so afraid of losing control of my wife, of her being an independent person, that I acted like…well, like an animal. It’s a sickness, but it is more than just that. This is something men have been doing to women for thousands of years. In here, right in this room, I learned what the problem is and what to do about it. And it has changed everything I have ever thought about what being a man is supposed to be.”
Howard studied the other men in the group. He noted some smirks and the look of disgust on some of the faces. Those looks seemed to deepen the more Rob spoke. The room was quietly cringing, as though something rotten was fouling the air.
Rob continued talking, but Howard began to lose track of his words. The grief that had become his constant companion welled up in his chest and threatened to spill out on to the floor at the feet of these strangers. He choked it back down and did his best to return his attentions to whatever it was that Rob, whom he had already decided he didn’t like, was saying.
“So,” said the dapper man three chairs down, “I hope you open up a little, buddy. Remember, we’re all the same here.” He then pointed at Howard with his hand formed into a mock pistol, winked and clicked his tongue. With that, an actual groan escaped the lips of one of the other men, but Howard did not see who it was.
“Forget him,” said a heavyset man sitting directly across the circle from Howard. He had a cheerless, sullen face, stubble cast across his cheeks like a dark mood. “If you don’t talk they’ll use it against you in court.”
Howard pondered that for a moment and finally spoke again.
“They?” he asked, “Don’t you mean, her?” And he tilted his head in Tobi’s direction.
The big man grinned knowingly and shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s all the same,” he said.
“No, it’s not,” Tobi interjected, with more than a hint of aggravation in her voice. “Mr. Franks, I am a therapist, not a judge. I don’t tell the court anything you say in here. That’s held in confidence. All I do is report whether you have attended and whether you are cooperative. Whether you believe it or not, I am here to help you.”
Howard regarded her for a moment and leaned forward slightly.
“And what is cooperative, Ms. Pitts? Am I uncooperative if I don’t spill my guts to you? Perhaps put on a little dog and pony show?” he asked, cocking a thumb back at Rob Watson.
Tobi swallowed. Her fingers, once woven loosely together, tightened and began a slight tremble. A rose hue painted itself across the skin of her face and her eyes hardened. Howard looked at the big man, whose expression now simply pled caution. Silence again filled the room. This time it was a silence as taut and bloodless as Tobi’s fingers.
Howard raised his hand and bowed his head pensively. The misery in his chest rose up again and felt like it was cutting its way out with a dull, rusty knife. He had to steady himself before he could speak. Finally, he began, with a whisper.
“Six weeks ago I had a family. Twelve years with my wife, Kate, and two beautiful daughters. I had a good business, with what I thought was a decent enough business partner and no reason to think I would ever end up here.” Howard lifted his head and made direct eye contact with Tobi.
“Then my father died. It was not unexpected, he’d be fighting cancer for three years. Kate convinced me that it wouldn’t be best to pull the kids out of school and fly them to Baltimore for the funeral. I agreed and went on my own. I was gone for four days.”
Howard didn’t notice it, but at this point all of the other men in the room were watching him. Each of them leaned forward, listening.
“When I got back I stopped on the way home to buy some flowers. Just something for Kate for carrying the weight while I was gone. But my credit card was declined. I called the bank and was informed that all my accounts were closed. All the money was gone.”
Rob Watson interrupted. “Oh man, here come the excuses. I can see it already.”
“Shut the fuck up and let him talk.” the big man demanded. Watson scowled, but shrank back in his chair.
Howard shook off the interruption and continued. “I went home and nobody was there. I found the kids with her mother. And her, she was…”Howard raked his fingers through his hair and took a deep breath. “She was with my business partner. They had taken it all. The money, the business, all of it, gone.”
“I caught up to them at his place. Can you believe it was her that answered the door? She was wearing this silk robe I gave her last Christmas. I just stood there dumbfounded for, I dunno, what seemed like forever. When I could finally make myself speak all I could do was ask her why. Why had she done this? She told me it was because I was a loser. She told me she was a woman with needs and that I never, from the day we were married, met them. She told me the kids would be better off without me and that any more contact with her or them would have to be through a lawyer.”
“Then she told me something else.”
Howard closed his eyes and seemed to drift for a moment in the vacuum of the silent room. He opened them again and found the group transfixed, leaning forward in their chairs, as though teetering toward whatever he would say next. And when he spoke, it was not just toward Tobi, but all of them.
“She told me that she would kiss me goodbye but she didn’t think I’d like the taste of another man’s cock on her lips.”
A single tear slid from Howard’s eye and tracked down the side of his face. There were a few quiet mutterings in the room that Tobi silenced with single, dark glance at the group.
“I lost it,” said Howard, clinching his hand into a fist and beating it against his knee. “I punched her in the face, hard, and broke her nose. Of course I went to jail, and that’s how I wound up here, Ms. Pitts. Another wife beater for your version of history.”
Tobi glowered. For just a moment she looked explosive, dangerous. She hung her head for a moment, hiding her face in her hair. When she lifted it back up her expression was flat and detached. And then she asked, in the equally flat and detached tone of her profession, “Are you saying she deserved to be assaulted, Howard? To get a broken nose?”
Howard thought for a moment and replied.
“No, Ms. Pitts. I am saying she deserved the beating of a lifetime.”
The entire room now took on a life of its own. The other men shifted around in their chairs. One of them muttered, “Fucking-a-right.” Another followed with, “Yeah.”
Tobi rushed to speak but Howard cut her off.” I’m not done,” he said, His tone was final and unyielding. “You wanted me to talk and I am talking. You just listen.” He settled himself for a moment, and then said, more softly, “Please.”
Tobi gently bit her lower lip, then gave Howard a reluctant, almost unperceivable nod.
“You’d think this, being here I mean, would be the worst of it, but it’s not. After doing flips for weeks to try to see my daughters, last week I was allowed to talk to my oldest, Lisa, on the telephone. I was thinking the whole time that as bad as things were that I could live with it, that I could manage a way to move forward if I could just be with my children again. I was so happy to have Lisa on the phone. I couldn’t wait to tell her how much I missed her and that I couldn’t wait to see her. I didn’t even care that the social worker was listening in to the call.”
“But you know what she said when I told her how much I wanted to see her? She said…” He paused, drew a sharp breath and tried again. “She…said…” He faltered again, and then, whatever Howard had used to hold himself together failed, and the façade collapsed. Tears streamed from his eyes. His breathing shuddered and turned to great, heaving hitches as he cupped his hands over his face and sobbed. He had to force out every word, one at a time, to finish his story.
“She said, ‘I can’t see you till your better, Daddy. Mommy said you’re sick.’”