Nadine Darling

Lute is reclusive writer; she lives in a hundred dollar a week hotel called the Monte Carlo, which overlooks the faint shopping cart trickle of Bear Creek in Medford, Oregon. Junior lives with her because what else does he have? He wrote her a letter and came to see her on a bus and stayed. It was enough because they were both lonely. They had that in common. They also enjoyed rotisserie chicken.

She has four ex-husbands. One is a jockey. Two is a print model for a Bay Area-based nautical-wear company. Three is a journalist. Four is a local actor. Hot dog, that’s where the money goes.

Junior had no idea that Lute had ever been married, let alone four times.

“There’s no reason you should have known,” says Lute. “I’m not George Harrison.”

Junior guesses she meant to say George Hamilton but, in either case, her choice of example for stardom bespeaks volumes about her self-imposed exile. Neither man is, at this point, a particularly prime paparazzi target, Mr. Harrison having passed away, Mr. Hamilton having accepted that he is a tanned, attractively aging man and frequently seeks to be paid for these qualities.

Lute is a bit famous, a local celebrity like Granny Dollar from Dollar Chevrolet or that little dog that barks at the end of that title loans commercial. She wrote a book and it was very popular. One of those neo-chick deals. The protag was a fat personal assistant, her mother was domineering, the best friend was gay. There was a movie, a big deal, huge clamoring for a second book. And she wrote one, killing off the main character in the first two pages. After that she stopped leaving the house and started getting married. It seemed to work, she says, until it didn’t.

They all look vaguely alike, the husbands, and, most disquieting of all, they look vaguely like Junior. Lute seems unaware or indifferent. The four of them come around together asking for things, to know things, to have things or borrow them. She calls them One, Two, Three, and Four. Sometimes Two brings his lawyer, a Cuban gentleman named Alfred who is also a powerful television psychic.

“Alfred, when will I die?” Lute asks every time she sees him, and every time he answers, “August sixth.”

“Nice,” says Lute, “Nice. I’m gonna kill myself on August fifth, just because I can’t stand the suspense.”

There is much humor concerning death, or wanting to die, or the desire to kill someone or one’s self. Also much name-calling and “your mama” jokes. Mama’s so this, mama’s so that. And do you know about your mama? Do you know what your mama did? On her tombstone, she says, she wants it to read: I tried.

When she married One the first song they danced to was “Endless Love.”

Endless Love. Endless Love. Endless Love. She says the title a bunch of times and very slowly, like Johnny Carson—because there’s a joke coming and she doesn’t want Junior to miss the set-up.

“What dance did we even do?” says One.

“The same one I’ll do on your grave," says Lute, and they both laugh and click the lips of their glasses.

She fights the most with Four, the actor, who can sometimes be yanked from retirement for the right project. He is highly valued for his otherworldly whiteness, as well as for his flinchiness and appearance of general confusion. He has a standing role as an uncool white guy in any number of ethnic movies and TV shows, not to mention spoken interludes in between cuts on rap albums. He never plays the cruel calculated uncool white guy but the well-meaning uncool white guy who doesn’t know any better, also panicky white storeowner, impotent white husband, and dishonest white politician. Things often shock his characters, and they dance poorly and misuse popular slang, and generally always end up in bed with obese comediennes. He says, in every circumstance, there was a point where he felt creative control slipping away.

“What did I even see in you?” says Lute. “Why did we even marry?”

“We were very much in love,” says Four.

“No, but really,” says Lute.

One night Lute takes Junior out onto the terrace and they smoke for a while. The husbands have gone to a movie or fair. The smell of them, of Guinness, shoe polish and Drakkar Noir, is faint but apparent, insidious as a cough. And Junior wants to tell her things, things that were not in the letter he sent her.

“I’ve heard it all before,” says Lute, but kindly.

“Before I met you...” says Junior.

“Your mom beat on you some, sure. The boys didn’t accept you. The girls laughed at you.”

Junior blinks.

“You didn’t know your real father and even if you did you didn’t. Maybe he sent you a five spot on Christmas or on your birthday. Maybe he tried to remember the day of your birthday, or the month, and he was wrong. And then you found a book, or a movie or a song or you saw a face and there was this light. And you wanted to follow this light and see what you could find.”

She smokes and he watches her face in profile, the clean lines of it, the smoke retreating from her parted lips. When they marry, he thinks, it will be for forever. They will dance to “Endless Love.” They’ll leave the house and lock the doors and there will be no ones, twos, threes, or fours, no prelude, no precedent.

In the fading twilight, Junior and Lute can see them approaching, the four of them, laughing and back slapping, bound by such troubled, tenacious love, and what Junior sees in Lute’s face is a mixture of affection, confusion, nausea, acceptance.

She says, “I loved every one of them so hard I thought my heart would stop from it.”

“What happened?” says Junior.

Lute crunches out her cigarette, flicks it like a cricket over the railing to the creek below. “Oh, you know,” she says, “in the end it was bitch, bitch, bitch.”

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