Fiction: “No Man’s Land” by Nancy Ford Dugan

“I had a dream I was sitting in a car in a mini mall and my tooth fell out. Unusual for me, right? As a city gal to be in a car, much less a mini mall? I was holding the tooth cupped in my hand in my lap. Then somehow I spotted a dental office in the mini mall, and the dental assistant slash receptionist was Laura Linney.”

Max chuckled on the phone. “Was she nice?”

“She was competent, maybe officious but appropriately so. She was in a cardigan.”

“Of course she was,” said Max.

She paused to suck iced tea through her straw. “In real life according to my dentist, I’ve outlived my fillings. I’m thinking maybe that triggered the dream.”

Should she move off medical topics? But then were dentists really medical? His e-mail said to call him since he had “sobering” health news. Who but Max says sobering?

They were dancing around the topic. He had a bombshell to deliver, and she wasn’t sure the etiquette.

He seemed chipper. Almost annoyingly so.

They’d been playing phone tag all day. She kept trying him in between office meetings. It was now 3:17 p.m., and she didn’t have another call until 3:30. Was that enough time to discuss sobering health news? But she was tired of the suspense and worry. She wanted identification of the problem so they could move to solutions. Maybe it was nothing. Max was always thinking he was in dire straits. He and his wife and kids were packing up and moving into a smaller house in two days. He said with the recession, their family money was no longer enough to afford the grand house they had enjoyed for fifteen years.

“I packed up all your letters again, just this morning,” Max said. “We were such depressing kids. I thought, ‘should I toss them or not?’ But I just re-taped the box and off they go to yet another abode. How many is that?”

For Max several. For her few: she was still living in, and complaining about, her post-college apartment.

She was ridiculously pleased he kept her letters. She still had his in a shoebox somewhere inside the cramped closet. Didn’t read them but could not contemplate tossing them either.

It was 3:20 and still no health info.

“Okay,” he said and took a deep breath. He told her. “So we’re off to Johns Hopkins next week. I should be fine.”

“Oh, Max,” she said. Her headset was slipping. She’d started wearing one after her jaw locked as a result of the nonstop, global conference calls. Was it appropriate to take such news on a headset, or should she lift the receiver? But they’d recently installed a new office phone system she hadn’t mastered yet; she feared she’d accidentally disconnect him.

“What really pisses me off is I never smoked, I run every day, I take care of my health. I guess I should have been having more fun, doing heroin or something.”

“There’s still plenty of time for heroin,” she said, trying to be helpful and trying not to cry.

He laughed. In his teens, he’d once gone into a fiery tirade about the challenges of being Jewish, and she’d called out to him trying to make him feel better: “You’re not a Jew!” He’d laughed so hard she thought he would choke. She’d meant it fervently at the time, and of course it meant nothing. They’d been full of passionate intensity.

“Are you telling people? Or keeping it quiet?” she asked.

“We’re not telling anyone. Just you and Harry (his childhood neighbor) and Richard,” (his close friend and her ex-college boyfriend). She tried to squash the mild feeling of pride at being on the short list, even to receive the worst possible news.

“Okay,” she said. 3:25. She understood it would be astonishingly rude to try to get him to wrap it up so she could jump on her upcoming call. He was a stay-at-home dad with no Outlook calendar. “I’m a troglodyte!” he relished telling everyone, along with his theory that the human race was starting to resemble blowfish, with all the double chins sprouting on BlackBerry-checking twentysomethings. “Neck lifts will be the new big thing for everyone’s thirtieth birthdays!” he claimed.

“Very impressed by your secretary by the way,” Max said. “Indian, I presume?”

“Yes, and she looks like Miss Universe. And if she knew about you, she’d get the candles and prayers going.”

“Candles couldn’t hurt,” he said.

“You got it. Let’s cover all the bases.”

“I will never have a secretary. Or take heroin.”

“Max, we don’t know that.”

“I don’t want either! The new house will be fine,” he said, changing topics. “We won’t be able to entertain as lavishly as we could in the other one. But we’ll have everyone over soon.” Who but Max says lavishly?

He was always a great host. From his wannabe Jack Kerouac days as a bartender, and later from running his own restaurant.

“Do you still eat fish?” Max asked.

“Not shellfish.”

“Right. Not shellfish.”

He was facing Johns Hopkins and planning a menu for her. Once, she and a cranky acquaintance had escaped from the city to avoid the congestion of a political convention. They’d passed through Max’s town and he’d graciously invited them to dinner, charming all the crankiness out of the guest for the entire evening. When they’d arrived Max’s wife had asked “How long before he pulls out the yearbook?” She’d guessed ten minutes and been right. Max informed the now-not-cranky guest of all their school escapades and made sure she saw all his favorite photos, when they both had lustrous hair and looked good in jean jackets.

Max still had all his thick hair, with one Sontag-like streak now jutting across the front.

“How’s Carol taking all this? The kids?”

“Everyone’s fine.”

“I can go with you. To Johns Hopkins.”

“I know. I appreciate it. But we’ll be fine.”

She didn’t want to say what she was thinking, so he did.

“Look, I know your dad died of this, but that was what? Over twenty years ago? If he had it today, they could fix him right up. Timing is everything.”

“Oh, I know. You’ll be fine. It’s early, right? And small?”

“Exactly.”

When Max had visited her in the Midwest as her dad was dying, he’d impressed her rarely pleased mother by volunteering to empty and load the aging dishwasher. Unasked, he’d wiped the damp bottom of each clean glass before installing them back in the cabinets. “He’s the perfect guest and can come anytime,” her mom had declared—words she’d never use to describe anyone else. That was his only visit.

Now, she listened as her boss screamed from his “open office” next door. His whiskey-hoarse voice (damaged, he claimed, from refereeing his son’s soccer games) tizzily sent everyone scrambling past her desk.

She wanted to tell Max that she‘d had a tennis lesson the week before and thought of him. Not because she’d worn a new, cheap blue T-shirt that had comically given her blueberry-stained armpits. And not because there was a Goldfish cracker on the court that seemed to stare at her accusingly from the baseline whenever she hit the ball into the net.

The pro kept yelling at her to either run forward or stay back. “You’re in No Man’s Land!” The judging cracker seemed to agree. It looked like a midget arrow, trying to direct her to a higher, better path.

Max always yelled the same thing at her when they used to play. He was always one step ahead of her. “You’re in No Man’s Land. Get the hell out of No Man’s Land. I can pass you.”

Max always ran with his knees too high. Did his wife know that?

She wanted to tell Max that she was still in No Man’s Land after all these years. “Good for you,” he would probably laugh, maybe comparing her to a Paul Simon song.

3:29. She was now sure she’d be late to the 3:30 call. She always added a wish to be a better friend when she listed all her faults at night before trying to sleep. She was sure this meant not cutting off soul mates as they relayed life-threatening news.

She was negotiating with an executive to leave his prestigious job and join her company. He was at the top of the short list of candidates, and she’d been wooing him for two years. At 3:30 he was going to tell her if he would accept her offer. It was his only available time to talk that week from Brussels in between his flights and meetings.

He was Hispanic, which would make her boss and the Board happy. He was also overqualified and kind, unlike the usual divas she dealt with. Their demands were often petty and sometimes as complex as a merger and acquisition. But this candidate had been eerily easy so far. Part of her wondered if he should give up his current position to join her fusty organization. Would it make him happy?

“Max, what can I do? I love you.”

“I love you too. I’ll be fine.”

“I know you will. I don’t want a world without you in it.”

“Yikes!” he said, “I know. No pressure!”

She looked out the window at Park Avenue. There were lavender tulips blooming in the center divider. It was spring. Something was growing outside.

Later that night she walked home in the rain and was grateful for its pelting down on her even as it upset the tulips; she could cry in relative privacy under the protection of her cheerfully patterned umbrella.

At home she listened to a message from a college roommate describing an emergency retinal tear she’d had successfully lasered that day.

They were all falling apart.

Max said, “Hon, I have got to go pick up Ben from his tuba lesson.”

“Sure. Good luck with the move. And everything. Call you soon.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

They were so much nicer to each other as they aged, their day-to-day grievances giving way to fond nostalgia. Now that he lived so far away, in her mind he was always there for her.

She’d always been under his sway, his opinion mattering too much to her, even if she disagreed with it. His loud, tangy voice made his pronouncements—on books, music, politics, people—sound like a reprimand, and yet seem plausible even when they were nuts. He could wound her deeply, even over stupid things. “You had no business being in Honors English,” he once said to her out of the blue, twenty years after the fact.

Her one brush with high school infamy was his doing. At his urging, they’d crashed a ritzy sweet sixteen at a country club. Max thought it would be a revolutionary act. She thought he was just annoyed he hadn’t been invited. The birthday girl had been furious and created a scene the following week in the school cafeteria, expressing surprise at her lowlife behavior and demanding payment to cover the amount of their dinners. Max, she noted, got no such scolding. “Why is the woman always blamed?” she’d asked Max, who cackled with glee at her getting stuck with the check. She’d felt briefly like an outlaw, which may have been Max’s intent (to spice up her prissy image).

At 3:35 she called the candidate and apologized for being late.

“In my book, anything within ten minutes is on time,” he said.

She loved him for that and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself and refocus after Max’s news.

“So was there anything else you needed to help you make your decision?” she asked the candidate.

As he responded she thought of the flock of tuba players she’d seen last month at the St. Patrick’s Day parade. She should have told Max about them. He would have challenged her use of the word “flock.”

Then she answered all the candidate’s questions about the relocation package, and assured him the company would cover his daughter’s ongoing orthodontia. She tried not to say too much or too little. Anything could blow the deal.

She waited.

This was the moment—she felt it. She was silent which was, as Max would tease, difficult for her: the calculated, pregnant pause, the adrenaline rush, to see if she could land him. Reel him in.

It all comes down to timing, teeth, and being on a short list.

He took the deal.

But she felt no thrill.

Nancy Ford Dugan lives and works in New York City and previously resided in Michigan, Ohio and Washington, DC. Her short stories have appeared in over 20 publications and she has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

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