“I’m not going to sit here and listen to this baloney.”
“He won’t you know. He doesn’t stand for baloney!”
- Weird Science
Fred woke up the next morning at 11:30, hungover and with nothing to do. He wandered desultorily downstairs, grabbed a pop tart and headed into the family room where he joined his mother and Rosie on a large sectional sofa. Rosie was blowing on her recently-painted nails (glittery black) and leafing through Spin Magazine. Their mother was doing the People Magazine crossword and waiting for Oprah to come on. Susan Bulstrode was a big fan of Oprah. She thought it was nice to get a little celebrity in Chicago.
Susan Bulstrode was perfectly content with her life. She lived in a beautiful, well-appointed townhouse in a tony section of the Gold Coast. The same tony section, as it happened, that Teddy lived in. Boy, they would have hated each other had they ever happened to meet. Fortunately, thus far, they had not. So Susan remained perfectly content with her life.
And why shouldn’t she be? She was happily married to a successful man who adored her. She lived in a beautiful home. Her children were attractive and educated. Rosie was beautiful and bright and bound to marry well once she settled down. Fred was handsome and sweet and destined for a lucrative career once he sowed his wild oats.
She herself was fit and pretty, looking closer to 40 than 50. She dressed in expensive, tasteful clothes that she accessorized perfectly. She was on the board of several charities, was a frequent guest at elegant cocktail parties and was no stranger to the Tribune’s society pages. If she spent a little time in the mornings with Oprah, who are we to judge? Oprah has a very broad appeal!
“Mom,” said Rosie, “Fred still smells like the bar last night. Tell him he’s got to take a shower before he comes in here.”
“You know,” said Susan. “You do smell like old cigarettes and stale beer, Fred. It might be nice if…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll take a shower in a minute,” said Fred. “I just need a little coffee or maybe a coke.”
“Fred,” said Susan. “You really ought to take better care of yourself. Too many late nights at the bar aren’t good for you.”
“Well,” said Fred. “As soon as I’m human again, I have to head back. I left my credit card there.”
“You’re going to The March?” asked Rosie. “Are you driving? Can you give me a ride? I want to pick up my check.”
“Yeah, whatever. I don’t care,” said Fred miserably.
“Fred, darling,” said his mother sympathetically. “Why do you drink so much?”
“He’s grieving for his unrequited love, Mommy,” Rosie snotted. “The bright but boring Mary won’t toss him one.”
“Shut up, Rosie,” said Fred. “Mary isn’t boring. And your stupid nail polish doesn’t make you interesting, you know.”
“Oh you two,” said Susan. “Always bickering. If this Mary girl doesn’t want to go out with you Fred, then it’s her loss. You’re a very handsome boy.”
In this midst of this cheery assessment, their father, James (I think) Bulstrode, whom I have hinted at so broadly in the preceding chapter, came strolling into the room. “Hmmm…” he said “Boy is right.”
Bulstrode was in his late 50s, reasonably fit, just shy of 6 feet tall, and his most distinguishing characteristic was a neatly trimmed, Ditka-esque mustache (Bulstrode’s was gray).
“I’m heading into the office,” he told Susan. “I have an interview with a potential new promotions manager today.”
“Promotions manager?” said Rosie. “What for?”
“For improving the profitability of my establishments,” said Bulstrode. “As apparently my children cannot be counted on to provide for themselves, I’m going to have to make sure I leave you a lot of money when I die.”
“Oh, Daddy,” said Rosie. “I would be awesome at promotions! Why don’t you give me that job?”
“Sure,” said Bulstrode. “I should just give you a job you’re not qualified for to get you out of the one you’re overqualified for. I continue to expect you to sort that out for yourself. Come to church with us more often and you might meet an appropriate man for marrying, which you’ll never do dressing the way you do and working at that bar.”
“Like I want to get married,” said Rosie, flopping back over onto the couch.
“What are your plans for the day, Fred,” asked Bulstrode.
“Um,” said Fred, “I was going to give Rosie a ride to work this afternoon and then I thought I’d take my car in for an oil change.”
“Full day then,” said Bulstrode, rolling his eyes.
Bulstrode didn’t understand and didn’t much like his children. When they were younger, they were cute. Susan dressed them appropriately. They did well in school and practiced good manners. But then they grew up. Now Rosie wore all that makeup and had six holes in each ear. She dressed like a slut and made no effort to meet appropriate young men.
Fred was shiftless, lazy and unfocused. He’d been in college for six years now and was still 21 credits shy of graduation.
Susan thought her children were delightful and urged Bulstrode to be more accommodating of the follies of youth. But Bulstrode had been young once, and he’d worked hard when he was young (Bulstrode may have had a tendency to broadly edit his own history). He found his children’s behavior discomfiting and unreasonable. They were indolent and self-indulgent.
He couldn’t wait for them to leave home.
Fred and Rosie used to be nervous around their father. Now they just didn’t care. They’d both put aside any hopes of pleasing their father long ago. For Rosie, the consequences of being the person he wanted her to be were terrifying. Some gargantuan white wedding, where she would blush and look modestly down at her toes; and then a lifetime of twinsets and pearls and society dinners. No fucking way.
As for Fred, he didn’t know how to be who his father wanted him to be. And he didn’t know who he wanted to be. Mostly, he knew he wanted to be with Mary. But since that one solidly formed wish was daily denied him, he spent his time drifting about from place to place, amiable and sweet, but every bit as unfocused as his father accused him of being.
An air of enmity and dissatisfaction began permeating the charmingly furnished family room. And so Susan Bulstrode exercised her one awesome talent: she smothered it with her own aggressively blithe contentment. She had an uncanny knack for dispelling tension. “You should all be nicer to each other,” she said firmly. “I’m going to make some peanut butter crackers to eat with Oprah."
Bulstrode, who never stopped feeling lucky that he’d married someone so lovely and sophisticated, smiled at her and kissed her on the cheek. And then bid his family an almost sincere good morning as he headed out to work.
After Oprah had consoled the remaining Bulstrodes with messages of empowerment, Rosie and Fred decided to leave for The March.
“Maybe while we’re there,” said Rosie. “Mary will take pity on you and bring you to the back room for a quickie.”
“Shut up, Rosie,” said Fred. “You know, you’re pretty smug for someone who hasn’t had a date in over a year. Why is that, do you think? Couldn’t be because you’re less hot than you think you are, could it?”
“No, dumbass,” said Rosie. “It’s by choice.”
When Fred and Rosie arrived at the bar, Mary was chatting with some construction workers about the White Sox. Rosie swept in to join them and immediately charmed the blue-collar crew, who quickly lost interest in both Mary and the White Sox.
Fred settled himself as the far end of the bar and asked Mary for a coke.
She poured him one, set it on a cocktail napkin, and grinned as she handed him his credit card.
“Did I pay my tab?” asked Fred, sheepishly.
“Nope,” said Mary. “But Dad signed you out. Shhhh.”
“I bet he didn’t leave a tip on the card,” said Fred, pulling out a twenty. “Can you get this to him?”
“Will do,” said Mary. “You know, you’ve got too much time on your hands when you’re hanging out at a bar at 1:30 on a Wednesday, drinking a coke. You have got to get a job.”
“I’m going back to school in the spring,” he said tentatively. “Finishing up my undergrad and then starting graduate school.”
“Studying what,” Mary asked warily.
“Law,” said Fred. “Dad thinks I should be a lawyer.”
“Oh, Christ on a cracker, Fred!” said Mary. “You don’t want to be a fucking lawyer.”
“Well, I have to do something,” said Fred. “And Dad says he’ll pay for that. I don’t know what else to do. He’s already cut me off until school starts, so I’m living on a rapidly depleting trust fund and this credit card that he’ll cancel as soon as he realizes I still have it.”
“Here’s a crazy idea, Fred,” said Mary. “Get a fucking job! Get out on your own and get your own life and quit letting your father decide who you should be. Grow the fuck up!”
Harsh, isn’t she? But she’s right. And, oh, how Mary would love it if Fred would grow up! Oh, how she’d love to let Fred into her life. But, you understand, she can’t when he’s like this, can she? Mary is too smart for that.
Fred stared into his coke and said quietly. “If you would be with me, I bet I would grow up. If I had a girl like you, I could get my shit together.”
“Fuck you, Fred,” said Mary, disgustedly. “Do not make your failure to commit to anything meaningful in your life my fucking fault.” And then she opened the textbook she had resting on the beer coolers and began ignoring him.
“I’m trying,” said Fred. “I’m doing the best I can. Maybe I’ll be a great lawyer, you know? I mean, you’re not the only one who can be a lawyer!”
Mary rolled her eyes over her textbook and continued ignoring him.
Poor Fred! Always missing the point on purpose and falling more and more in love.