Good Soldier Cunningham
One day it occurred to Cunningham that he might benefit from exercise. He began to take longish walks every Saturday or Sunday or both and once even found himself fingering a pair of ten-pound barbells in the sporting goods section at Wal-Mart. This madness soon passed, of course. No sooner had he resumed his sedentary ways, however, than his wife decided she’d take up walking. Wouldn’t you know it?
A stroll around the neighborhood wasn’t good enough for her, though. Oh no, she had to drive to the indoor mall, ignoring Cunningham’s righteous indignation at this further depletion of our dwindling fossil-fuel reserves.
“Just don’t blame me when our oil runs out and we have to go to war with the Arabs again.”
“I promise I won’t blame you,” she smirked. “Now go get the car out of the garage.”
Although she was perfectly capable of driving herself, she refused to go to the mall without Cunningham. Once there, she would seat Cunningham on one of those torturous steel benches with orders not to move a muscle until she returned for him. And there he’d sit. Five nights a week, 6:15 to 7:00.
In truth, his outrage at being enlisted against his will in her exercise regimen was more rhetorical than actual. Heck, those trips to the mall were the highpoints of his week. No telephone calls, no little brats at the door selling popcorn or magazine subscriptions or wrapping paper, no abuse from the ol’ ball and chain, whose eccentric orbit brought him within her event horizon eight times during her circumnavigations of the mall. (Though the reigning Queen of Nag, she apparently hadn’t mastered the art of doing it on the move while her victim was stationary; give her time, though.) The one negative was the sore ass he inevitably endured from sitting on the bench, but even this was ameliorated somewhat once he caught on to her routine. He was out of her field of vision for approximately three minutes on each of her laps around the mall, and during that three minutes, Cunningham could do whatever he damn well pleased.
What mostly pleased him was skipping down to the It’s a Kid’s World toy shop, where he would stand staring rapturously through the window for precisely 150 seconds before discretion urged him to retreat back to his bench. The marvels that awaited children today! Electronic robots, magicians’ kits, remote-controlled race cars, wooden block sets in the shape of Russian onion-domed cathedrals, on and on and on. Cunningham had grown up in, not a poor family, but a family with little left over for frills after the bills had been paid. His birthday gifts were clothes for as far back as he could remember, clothes, too, for Christmas except for one toy, always only one, which he looked forward to like a, like a . . . . Well, Cunningham couldn’t complete the thought. He couldn’t conceive of a human being looking forward to anything like he looked forward to his one toy for Christmas. He’d dream about that toy—speculate about what it might be, hope and pray, oh yes, when he was a lad endlessly pray for what he hoped it would be—for days and weeks on end leading up to Christmas morning. The toy would always be wonderful at the same time that it was never quite so gloriously wonderful as the toy he’d hoped and prayed for. Like the year he’d seen a pair of cowboy pistols at Woolworth’s—silver barrels, black handles embedded with silver stars, gleaming black plastic belt and holsters. His parents had seen how his eyes lit up and his heart went out to those pistols, he was positive they’d seen it, and every night he prayed and every day he hoped for that set, nothing else for the rest of his life, please God, just that set of pistols. Come Christmas morning and he opens the last present, the toy always being last, and there is the pistol and holster. Pistol. Holster. One of each. Not the two guns in their twin holsters in which he’d seen himself swagger down the street, equal of any kid in the gun-totin’ world. His parents had gotten him all they could afford, he knew that, but, oh, that two-pistol set, to have had the two-pistol set . . . .
Kids today, they had so much–look at all that stuff in the window. Not many guns, though. Gun-poor, these kids. Cunningham almost felt sorry for the little bastards.
Boy, did Cunningham like looking at all those toys! It didn’t occur to him to feel a little foolish, a man in his mid-fifties, staring nose to the toy-shop window like some street urchin, until one night he looked up and saw the clerk inside watching him, a smile on her face.
Cunningham blushed and was ready to head for the hills when a shockingly pleasant realization froze him to the spot: that very pretty girl’s smile wasn’t derisive, not a bit of it, but was friendly, warm. Cunningham smiled back and her smile broadened, became warmer, more cordial. Cunningham blushed again, but a different sort of blush this time. He raised his right hand as if to doff his hat—but of course he wasn’t wearing one.
Thoroughly discombobulated, Cunningham retreated back to his bench, where he spent the reminder of his wife’s walk-time wondering if this wasn’t indeed the most wonderful thing that had happened to him since, well, birth.
The next night he couldn’t wait for his wife to march off, swinging her arms dangerously high up and back—she’d annihilate anyone who got in her way; she was no doubt hoping that someone would be Cunningham—until she was out of sight beyond the martial arts weapons stall manned by the Korean-looking kid with dyed blond hair.
Cunningham trotted down to the toy shop. He pretended to look at the toys for two or three seconds before his eyes found the girl. She was talking to a customer. Cunningham felt disappointed and, irrationally, betrayed—but only for a moment. No, this was good. It gave him the opportunity to look her over: wow, she was really something. Cute as a button. No, beyond cute, way beyond, damn near beautiful with big probably brown eyes although they could have been green and thick brunette hair that fell to her shoulders in waves, a hairstyle like movie stars wore back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth—like that. “Lauren,” that’s the name he’d give to the girl in the toy shop.
“Cunningham! What are you doing?”
Cunningham jumped six inches. It was the ol’ ball and chain herself. She’d caught him away from his post. She said nothing else but just glared at him murderously as she motored past, those ham-hock arms pumping up and down, back and forth.
Cunningham slunk back to the bench.
His wife made two more loops before Cunningham worked up the courage to sortie out to the toy shop once more. There was Lauren, looking right out the window at him. She smiled. He smiled back. He pretended to be casually surveying the toys, but he couldn’t keep his eyes down. Every time he looked up, there was Lauren smiling at him. Oh, life is good, my friends, life is good.
Their relationship entered a new phase a few nights later. His wife was a half hour into her routine with fifteen minutes to go. Cunningham had already made three trips to the toy shop window. Three was his limit. He didn’t want Lauren to think he was some kind of stalker or, worse, much worse, just a foolish, pathetic old man. So three times, that’s it.
He’d had moderate success. Twice Lauren had been busy with customers and hadn’t even seen him. The one time she did see him, though, she smiled. Cunningham could live with that. Hell, Cunningham could thrive on that.
He was sitting contentedly on his bench watching the people traipse by, nothing much registering on him, about to doze off. Then, all of a sudden, there she was. Lauren!
It didn’t occur to him until afterward to ask himself how she could be coming from that direction, walking past him toward the toy shop. Had she walked past him once and he’d missed her, and now she was coming back? Had she taken an entire circuit around the mall? And who was minding the store? Cunningham had never seen another employee besides her.
He was too surprised to consider any of that at the moment, though. He had just enough time to think, She won’t even notice me, not out here, face to face, when she looked right at him, did a sort of double-take, and then without breaking stride smiled that glorious smile, fluttered her fingers at him, and said, “Hi, there!”
Cunningham’s heart did a two-and-a-half gainer into the Sea of Love.
He watched her walk on to the toy shop. Ohmygod! Since she’d always been behind the counter before, he’d never seen her full-figure. Wearing a form-fitting sweater, impossibly tight blue jeans, and high-heeled shoes, she was built—as the boys used to say, and still say, and will always say—like a brick shit-house.
She kept right on going past the toy shop. Maybe she was getting some exercise, just like his wife. Maybe she did this every night at this time, and Cunningham, unlikely as it seems, had never noticed her.
Cunningham jumped up and went after her.
He’d gotten maybe twenty paces past the toy shop when something—some inner, subliminal warning device, perhaps—caused him to turn his eyes away from Lauren’s precious derriere and glance across the mall, where he saw his wife barreling down the other side. If she happened to look over now, he was done for.
Cunningham did an about-face. Instead of fleeing like a rabbit with its ears on fire, though, he came to an abrupt stop. He was standing right in front of Victoria’s Secret. The entrance was bracketed by two display windows on each side. In one a saucy mannequin in panties and bra thrust her pelvis at him. In the next window, another bra-and-panty-clad damsel stood hands on hips, looking fetchingly bored. In the third window a young thing in a very naughty nightie reclined, right bare leg straight up in the air. The fourth, in something shimmeringly transparent, reclined on her side, one knee canted upward, head turned toward Cunningham. She stared him right in the eye. She seemed to be asking him a question. Cunningham dared not attempt an answer.
Somehow, Cunningham made it back to the bench. He could see them, the four of them, in his mind’s eye, one right after another. He closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to dislodge the absurd vision, but, here come the four again. This time, though, each one was Lauren, Lauren in each pose.
Cunningham looked up and saw his wife galumphing up on him. He lowered his gaze demurely. He crossed his legs, crossed his arms over his lap.
Yep, Cunningham was packin’ wood.
For a number of nights following the miraculous finger-wave, the happy-to-see-you smile, the “Hi, there,” things were as good as they’d ever get for Cunningham. Not that he had any hopes of something tangible (heh heh heh) happening with Lauren, but he was content to fantasize. His fantasies—all involving Lauren variously arrayed in scanty transparent garments from Victoria’s Secret, in various unlikely if not anatomically-impossible poses accompanied by Cunningham behind the toy shop counter, in the men’s or women’s room, on the floor of the momentarily unmanned martial arts weapons stand as unwary shoppers strolled past—were juvenile, grossly obscene, and embarrassing. But so what? At the cost of a blush Cunningham entertained himself mightily, and nobody hurt. He knew it would come to an end, of course, as good things inevitably do, and sooner rather than later. He figured the agent of his dreams’ demise would be his wife. Always a good bet, that. But he was wrong. It was Harry Pine.
The mall was littered with husbands dumped by their shop-‘til-you-drop wives, and Cunningham frequently had to share his bench with one or even two on busy nights. Often no communication would pass at all among this marital flotsam. At most a nod and a “Hi.” Harry Pine, though, liked to talk. It made no apparent difference to Harry if Cunningham talked back. Harry could handle the talking for both parties. And so he did, from the first night he plunked himself down on the opposite end of Cunningham’s bench through the next three successive nights until the Big Blow-Up of Ought-Six, Harry talked.
At first the incessant chatter so distracted Cunningham from his fantasizing that he even considered moving to a new bench. But then Cunningham actually listened to what the guy was saying: vile, slanderous, cynical, profanity-laced commentary on anyone who happened to fall under his gaze. Right up Cunningham’s alley, in other words. Harry was hilarious! He had Cunningham in stitches! Cunningham laughed so hard his sides ached, the tears rolled down his cheeks, he feared he would wet his britches.
“’Harry Pine.’ Is that your real name?” Cunningham asked between volleys of laughter.
“Sure, why not?”
“Oh, I don’t know, no offense now, but it sounds like a made-up name. Like the name of an actor in a porno movie. No offense, Harry.”
“Porno movie! Damn, wouldn’t that be a job? I’d give my left nut for a job like that. Come on, sweet thang, take a ride on Harry Pine!”
Oh, how Cunningham laughed.
What was Harry doing in the mall, Cunningham asked. Waiting for his wife like all the other poor saps? No, Harry was there “hunting chicks.” The mall was prime hunting ground, damn near a baited field. Harry the Hawk would do a little scouting, find the chick he wanted, then swoop. “Lay the Pine to her good.”
This was the funniest thing yet. Just look at the guy. Short and sallow-faced, with a smoker’s cough, damn near as old as Cunningham. Cheap blue jeans and dirty sneakers, a straw fedora of the type one might win in a carnival coin toss, a sport coat that looked like it was made behind the Iron Curtain, circa 1940. No George Clooney our Harry, Cunningham smirked. Funny, though. Funny, funny guy.
The downside of the Harry Pine thing for Cunningham was that not only couldn’t he indulge his fantasy-lust with Harry doing his monologue two feet away, he couldn’t spend time in front of the toy-shop window without explaining himself. And what would Harry’s machete-wit do with that? Cut Cunningham to ribbons, that’s what. Worst of all, though, was the possibility that Lauren would take another stroll around the mall—so far it had happened only that one time—and fall under Harry’s lascivious gaze. Cunningham didn’t want to think about it.
Here, the Cunningham Law came into effect: i.e., the worst possibility is the most likely to occur. It happened the third night that Harry graced Cunningham with his presence on the bench. This time Cunningham saw Lauren leave the shop. She turned to her right—away from the bench—and strolled off down the mall corridor. She’d take a circuit around the mall, probably, and come up on Cunningham’s right. On Harry’s right, too.
Good lord, the vile things Harry said about even some of the very average-looking women. What would he say about Cunningham’s lovely Lauren? Cunningham couldn’t bear to consider it.
He was still thinking about what he told himself he couldn’t bear to think about when Lauren came into view on his right. Cunningham tried to shift his gaze left, hoping thereby to draw Harry’s attention away, but he couldn’t do it. He looked right at her. Harry Pine looked right at her. Lauren approached the bench. Then she smiled that smile that lit up the murky world, raised her right hand and cocked her finger and thumb like a gun, and said, “Hey!”
Cunningham was devastated, destroyed. No, not because of what Harry said or did. It was worse, much worse than that. When Lauren smiled, made the gun-cocking gesture, said “Hey,” it was Harry Pine she smiled at, Harry she gestured toward, Harry she spoke to. She hadn’t even glanced at Cunningham.
“Sweet piece of ass there,” Harry said. “Gonna get me some of that real soon. Put her up the pole, know what I mean? The Harry Pine pole, 100% hardwood, guaranteed to please.”
Cunningham felt himself swooning. He could not speak or hear or see. Disillusionment can do that to a man.
When he “came to,” Harry was still in mid-rant, but no longer about Lauren: “Look at that cow, would you look at that? And unless my eyes are lying, she’s wearing a wedding ring. How’d you like to wake up next to a side of beef like that on a cold morning? Holy mother of crap, look at those arms going back and forth! She starts listing a little bit and she’ll take out a whole frigging wall.”
It was Cunningham’s wife goose-stepping past. Harry had to have seen her before, but he’d made no comment that Cunningham could recall. Maybe after just seeing Lauren, the contrast was so great that—
“Look at those legs! Damn, like two fireplugs with shoes on.” Cunningham’s wife was almost out of sight, but Harry wouldn’t let up. “How’d you like to have those legs around you? And that mug on her! Swear to God I had a bulldog looked just like her except it had less hair on it’s chin. I wouldn’t touch that with—“
Cunningham was up off the bench, glaring down at Harry, hands at his sides clenched into fists. Harry instinctively leaned back way from him, looking more confused than alarmed. “Huh?” he said.
“I told you to shut up. That was my wife.”
Harry peered down the corridor in the direction Cunningham’s wife had gone. He continued to stare for several seconds. Then he looked back up at Cunningham and said, as if asking for clarification, “You mean the cow?”
That’s when Cunningham fell on him with his more than ample girth, punching and elbowing and biting and scratching and crying, too, since for Cunningham from his earliest memories fighting meant crying because he always lost them. Always.
Mall security released Cunningham into his wife’s custody. No charges were to be filed, but Cunningham was banned from the mall for three months. They had taken Harry Pine away in the opposite direction. Cunningham never saw him again.
Cunningham’s wife had her finger hooked in the collar of his shirt, and she led him that way across the parking lot to the car. “I’ll drive,” she said. She put the key in the ignition but didn’t start the car. Instead she sat there, ominously silent, hands on the wheel.
Finally she said, “Well, are you drunk?”
It was her fondest theory that Cunningham spent every waking moment hatching schemes to get away from her long enough to “swill beer.” The last time he’d had a beer, gas was fifty cents a gallon.
“No, I’m not drunk.”
“Humph. If you haven’t been drinking, then what was that disgraceful exhibition all about? Fighting! Wrestling around like a hooligan, and in public! I’ll never get over the humiliation!”
Why didn’t she just go ahead and slaughter him? He was weary, too weary for questions. Death seemed pleasant indeed.
“He made comments,” Cunningham said, just to get it all over with. His wife would never let up until she got her answers.
“Comments? What kind of comments?”
“Well . . . they were comments about you.”
She lurched back like he’d taken a swing at her. “About me? What on earth did he say?”
“Well, things. Unpleasant things. . . . Things of a sexual nature.”
She tried to lurch back even further, but she was up against the door.
“Things of a sexual nature! . . . About me?”
“Yes, well, yes. Things he’d like to do. I’d rather not say more.”
She stared at him a moment, eyes wide, then stared blindly out the window another moment. Her mouth was working, but she couldn’t immediately utter words. Finally: “Well, I should say not. I don’t want to hear it. I should say not.”
They drove home in silence. They watched TV and read the paper, passing each other sections they’d finished and saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome” with studied courtesy.
Later, in the bathroom preparing for bed, Cunningham gazed at himself in the mirror. He looked like he’d been through it, all right. Smudge of dirt on one cheek. Two-inch scratch on his jaw. What little hair he had left was mussed, sticking up on both sides like the tufts of feathers on an owl’s head. He washed and dried his face and looked again and only then realized that his eyes were still red from crying. Crying. Fifty-five years old . . .
How had his life come to this? What was left to him now?
He started to open the door, then froze. What was that sound? It was his wife. She was humming. Humming! What did she have to be so happy about? Unless . . . Harry Pine? Could it be this thing with Harry Pine?
He peaked out. She was sitting on the side of the bed, her legs crossed, a bare foot going up and down, humming. She was wearing a nightgown he had never seen before. Wait. He thought perhaps he did remember it, from years and years ago. It was lavender, silky. Not like those Victoria’s Secret things, no, it was ankle-length and long-sleeved and rose to a little lace ruffle tight around her neck. Not Victoria’s Secret, but, still, lavender, silky.
There had been a time, surely there had been, before all the bitterness and coldness and silence, there had been a time, when they were younger, years and years and years ago . . .
Cunningham took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, opened the door, and, like a veteran of the wars called to battle one final time, stepped forward, prepared to do whatever was required of him.