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Doug Parker is a widower at age twenty-nine, and in his quiet suburban town, that makes him something of a celebrity – the object of sympathy, curiosity, and, in some cases, unbridled desire. But Doug has other things on his mind. First there’s his sixteen-year-old stepson, Russ: a once-sweet kid who now is getting into increasingly serious trouble on a daily basis. Then there are Doug’s sisters: his bossy twin, Claire, who’s just left her husband and moved in with Doug, determined to rouse him from his grieving stupor. And Debbie, who’s engaged to Doug’s ex-best friend and maniacally determined to pull off the perfect wedding at any cost. Soon Doug’s entire nuclear family is in his face. And when he starts dipping his toes into the shark-infested waters of the second-time-around dating scene, it isn’t long before his new life is spinning hopelessly out of control, cutting a harrowing and often hilarious swath of sexual missteps and escalating chaos across the suburban landscape. Funny, sexy, and smart, How to Talk to a Widower is a novel about finding your way, even when you have no idea where it is you want to go.
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Jonathan Tropper is the author of Everything Changes, The Book of Joe, which was a Book Sense selection, and Plan B. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and their children in Westchester, New York, where he teaches writing at Manhattanville College. How to Talk to a Widower was optioned by Paramount Pictures, and Everything Changes and The Book of Joe are also in development as feature films. Jonathan can be contacted through his website at www.jonathantropper.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Russ is stoned. You can see it in the whites of his eyes, which are actually more of a glazed pink under the flickering yellow porch light, in the dark discs of his dilated pupils, in the way his eyelids hang sluggishly at half-mast, and in the careless manner in which he leans nonchalantly against the pissed-off cop that is propping him up at my front door, like they’re drinking buddies staggering out into the night after last call. It’s just past midnight, and when the doorbell rang I was sprawled out in my usual position on the couch, half asleep but entirely drunk, torturing myself by tearing memories out of my mind at random like matches from a book, striking them one at a time and drowsily setting myself on fire.
“What happened?” I say.
“He got into a fight with some other kids down at the 7-Eleven,” the cop says, holding on to the top of Russ’s arm. And now I can see the lacerations and bruises on Russ’s face, the angry sickle-shaped scratch across his neck. His black T-shirt has been stretched beyond repair and torn at the neck, and his ear is bleeding where one of his earrings was snagged.
“You okay?” I say to Russ.
“Fuck you, Doug.”
It’s been a while since I last saw him, and he’s cultivated some facial hair, a rough little soul patch just beneath his bottom lip.
“You’re not his father?” the cop says.
“No. I’m not.” I rub my eyes with my fists, trying to gather my wits about me. The bourbon had been singing me its final lullaby, and in the freshly shattered stillness, everything still feels like it’s underwater.
“He said you were his father.”
“He kind of disowned me,” Russ says bitterly.
“I’m his stepfather,” I say. “I used to be, anyway.”
“You used to be.” The cop says this with the expression of someone who’s tasted some bad Thai food, and gives me a hard look. He’s a big guy—you’d have to be to hold up Russ, who at sixteen is already over six feet tall, broad and stocky. “You look young enough to be his brother.”
“I was married to his mother,” I say.
“And where is she?”
“He means she’s dead,” Russ says contemptuously. He raises his hand and lowers it in a descending arc, whistling as it goes down, and then hissing through his teeth to generate the sound effect of an explosion. “Buh-bye.”
“Shut up, Russ.”
“Make me, Doug.”
The cop tightens his thick fingers around Russ’s arm. “Keep quiet, son.”
“I’m not your son,” Russ snarls, trying in vain to tear himself away from the cop’s iron grip. “I’m not anybody’s son.”
The cop presses him easily up against the doorpost to quash his flailing arms and then turns back to me. “And the father?”
“I don’t know.” I turn back to Russ. “Where’s Jim?”
Russ shrugs. “Down in Florida for a few days.”
“What about Angie?”
“She’s with him.”
“They left you alone?”
“It was just for two nights. They’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Angie,” the cop says.
“His father’s wife.”
The cop looks annoyed, like we’re giving him a headache. I want to explain everything to him, show him that it’s really not as screwed up as it all sounds, but then I remember that it is.
“So the kid doesn’t live here?”
“He used to,” I say. “I mean, this was his mother’s house.”
“Look,” the cop says wearily. He’s a middle-aged guy, with a graying caterpillar of a mustache and tired eyes. “Whatever he’s been smoking, I didn’t find any of it on him. My shift is just about over, and I have no desire to spend another hour processing the kid over a stupid parking-lot scuffle. I’ve got three boys of my own. He’s being a hard-ass now, but he cried in the squad car and asked me to bring him here. So this is how it works. I can take him to the station and write him up for a handful of misdemeanors, or you can let him in and promise me that it will never happen again.”
Russ just stares sullenly at me, like this is all my fault.
“It will never happen again,” I say.
“Okay, then.” The cop releases Russ, who whips his arm away violently and then bolts into the house and up the stairs to his room, shooting me a look of unrefined hatred that pierces the blubber of my drunken stupor like a harpoon.
“Thank you, Officer,” I say to the cop. “He’s really a good kid. He’s just had a tough year.”
“Just so you know,” the cop says, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “This isn’t the first time he’s been in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
The cop shrugs. “The usual stuff. Fighting mostly. Some vandalism. And he’s obviously no stranger to the weed. I don’t know your deal here, but someone needs to start enforcing a curfew, and maybe get him some counseling. The kid is headed for trouble.”
“I’ll talk to his father,” I say.
“Next time, he gets booked.”
“I understand. Thanks again.”
The cop gives me a last skeptical look, and I can see myself through his eyes, bedraggled, unshaven, bloodshot, and half crocked. I’d be skeptical too. “I’m sorry about your wife,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, closing the door behind him. “You and me both.”
Upstairs, Russ has crawled under the covers in the darkness of what used to be his room. Everything is just as he left it, because, as with just about every other room in the house, I haven’t disturbed anything in the year since Hailey died. The house is like a freeze-framed picture of the life we once had, snapped in the instant before it was obliterated. I stand backlit in the hallway, my shadow falling on the bends and folds of his comforter as I try to come up with something to say to this strange, angry boy to whom I am supposed to somehow feel connected.
“I can hear you breathing,” he says without lifting his face off the pillow.
“Sorry,” I say, stepping into the room. “So, what was the fight about?”
“Nothing. These assholes just started talking shit to us.”
“They go to your school?”
“Nah, they were older guys.”
“I guess it’s hard to put up too much of a fight when you’re stoned.”
“Right.” He rolls over and lifts his head to sneer at me. “Do you really feel like you’re the best person to give me a lecture on the evils of drugs, Captain Jack?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think so,” he says, rolling back onto his pillow and burrowing his face into his arms. “Look, it’s been a long fucking night, so if you don’t mind . . .”
“I lost her too, Russ,” I say.
He makes a sound into his arms that might be a derisive snort or a smothered sob, I can’t quite tell. “Just close the door on your way out,” he whispers.
You never know when you’re going to die, but maybe something in you does, some cellular consciousness that’s aware of the cosmic countdown and starts making plans, because on the last night of her life, Hailey surprised me by wearing a bloodred dress, cut low and tight in all the right spots. It was almost as if she knew what was coming, knew that this would be our last night together, and she was determined to keep herself from fading too quickly into the washed-out colors of memory.
I couldn’t stop looking at her, my eyes dwelling for longer than usual on the familiar curves and contours of her body, still lithe and toned after one child and almost forty years, on the soft pockets of her exposed clavicles, the satiny white surface of her skin, and I wanted her in exactly the way you generally don’t want someone you’ve been sleeping with for almost three years. I found myself considering the practical implications of sneaking away from the table to meet in the bathroom for a quickie, pictured us in the confines of the locked bathroom, chuckling at our audacity between deep kisses as I pressed her up against the wall, the red dress pulled up over her waist, her smooth bare legs wrapped around me, pulling me into her. That’s what happens when you spend enough years living on your own with premium cable.
But even as the mental image aroused me to the point of discomfort beneath the table, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. For one thing, there was no way for both of us to slip away inconspicuously. For another, I was twenty-eight and Hailey almost forty, and while I liked to think that our sex life was good, better than most probably, quickies in public restrooms were no longer part of our repertoire. Actually, they’d never really been part of it to begin with, since I’m somewhat germ phobic, and the thought of exchanging fluids in the presence of all that random bacteria would be more than I could handle.
On the drive home, my hand slid higher and higher up the smooth vanilla expanse of her bare thigh, and by the time we’d pulled into the garage she was in my pants. I pulled up her dress in the darkness and bent her over the hood of the car, still hot and pinging from the drive, and then we were hot and pinging and we were teenagers again, except we were good at it, and we actually owned the car.
We must have been trailing afterglow like fairy dust when we came into the house a short while later, because Russ paused his video game, gave us a funny look, and then shook his head and told us to get a room. “No need,” Hailey said, grabbing my hand and heading for the stairs. “We’ve already got one.”
“Gross!” he said and, having rendered his judgment, went back to nonchalantly annihilating the undead on the wide- screen. And Hailey and I went upstairs to break the laws of God and the state of New York, and we went at it deliriously, with a renewed passion, kissing and licking and drinking and devouring each other. Like there was no tomorrow.
We’d been married for just under two years. I had left the city and moved in with Hailey and Russ, into the small Colonial she’d lived in with her first husband, Jim, until she found out he was cheating on her and kicked him out. And I was still getting used to the transformation, to being a husband in suburbia instead of a prowling dick in the city, to being a stepfather to a sullen teenager and the youngest member of the Temple Israel softball team, to dinner parties and backyard barbecues and school plays. I was still getting used to all of that when she got on a plane to see a client in California and somewhere over Colorado the pilot somehow missed the sky. And sometimes that life we were only just starting seems as tenuous to me as a fading dream, and I have to convince myself that it was actually real. I had a wife, I say to myself, over and over again. Her name was Hailey. Now she’s gone. And so am I.
But we’re not going to talk about that right now, because to talk about it I’ll have to think about it, and I’ve thought it to death over the last year. There are parts of my brain that are still tirelessly thinking about it, about her, an entire research and development department wholly dedicated to finding new ways to grieve and mourn and feel sorry for myself. And let me tell you, they’re good at what they do down there. So I’ll leave them to it.
From the Hardcover edition.
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