FRANKENHAUER AT THE RUBICON

The Rubicon is a small river in the Romagna region of Italy that formed the border between Rome and Cisalpine Gaul. Caesar stood on its banks while he deliberated the wisdom of war with Pompey. Concluding his deliberations, he crossed the Rubicon into his native Rome, giving rise, not only to Civil War and his dictatorial rule, but also to a pithy saying that few people use and fewer understand.

Dwight David Frankenhauer sat at his cherry wood desk and contemplated these facts. Because he, celebrated jurist (now retired from the bench) and president of the Athens Bar Association, was at that same Rubicon.

In high school, at Pere Marquette Jesuit Preparatory, he joked that Caesar had not said "the die is cast" and crossed the river, but tossed a silver dollar across it and said "E Pluribus Unum". Father Eustace scowled. The boys all laughed, except the beautifully delicate Manuel Forsica, son of a Bolivian diplomat. He had only recently come to the States, and had no grasp on English yet, and only the weakest fingerhold on Latin. Manual would need neither to get on in the world, and everyone knew it. David (he hated to be called Dwight) adored Manuel, in the way that only a fifteen year old boy can adore another.

David pulled his wallet from the back pocket of his grey trousers. Chloe, the once-magnificent, self-described female Ganymede, always called it his "butt-shaped wallet", and indeed it was. After so many years, it conformed itself perfectly to the line of his hips. If only all life was so malleable. Chloe, coming into his world after the wallet had seen a good decade of service, was the only one who seemed to notice. "Get out your butt-shaped wallet," she'd say, "And buy me a drink."

He opened the wallet and slipped the photograph of his wife onto the desk. It had been taken in 1978, when she was in her senior year at the University, finishing her degree at the age of 36. He didn't look at it. He didn't need to. He knew the false-angel face with its halo of bleached and then re-dyed blonde hair by rote, not by heart. Never by heart.

Instead, he gazed at the grey-and-brown school photo of Manuel. It not only did the boy no justice, it did him an injustice. The photographer had brushed the boy's dark, curly hair down flat against his head. "You'll look so American that way," he said, as if it were a great thing to look American. But Manuel's beauty lay precisely in the fact that he didn't look American.

At the photographer's command, he sat up straight. In his white oxford school shirt his throat looked mawkishly long and thin, like a stake-driver in a marsh, and his hair, brushed out and flattened, made him look like some Hispanic member of Spanky's Our Gang. Wherever Manuel was now, whatever he was, was a different creature entirely from the boy he once was, and he had never stopped missing the boy.

To David's surprise, as he fingered down the plastic sheathing through the old baby pictures of his son, his worn, blue and ecru social security card, and a series of credit cards (some cancelled by him, some by the companies), he found he had no picture of Chloe. He knew it, but it still surprised him. She should have been here.

He sighed. He was getting old. The truth was he could always shave ten years off his age because of his name. Named for Eisenhower (which rhymed with Frankenhauer), he was born in the year Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander of the Armed Forces in Europe, not when Ike became president in 1953. His parents, one generation removed from Germany, thought it a good idea to be seen as patriotic citizens whenever possible. His brothers, Franklin Delano and Harry S, wondered if they hadn't taken it a little too far.

He was not at the Rubicon in the precise place where Caesar crossed it. He was downstream a little, where it forms a confluence with the River Styx and he knew it. He opened the right top drawer of the pedestal desk and pulled a box of small-caliber bullets from under the security check box. He unlocked the drawer below it and reached for the slate-grey handgun.

He had bought the piece many years ago, in the mid-1980s, when a series of burglaries had galvanized the neighborhood into an armed camp. He had taken it from the house the night he found out his wife knew about Chloe. He had locked it in the desk drawer when Chloe's now-teenaged son had become belligerent and intractable.

Chloe. There was a failure. The very benchmark of failures in his life. Forty-four when they met, he was fighting shy of an avowal that he was no longer desirable, perhaps no longer even a man. Damn it. He knew he was. His body still responded to the proximity of Woman as it had when he was twenty. Well, thirty, maybe.

She was a bright woman in her mid-20s. Attractive. Reluctant. Somehow both oblivious and contemptuous of his money and power. She said she wanted a melding of minds and he was sometimes hard-pressed after a steady diet of televised golf tournaments and pornographic movies to find suitable topics. She wanted him to stimulate her mind with the same vigor that he longed for her to stimulate his body.

He began to read again, to explore the long-abandoned fields of science, history, art, music, little knowing until much later that she, too, was reading pell-mell to catch up with him so they could talk like intellectuals on equal footing. She would sometimes help in the office, and if he would ask her to take dictation, she would say, ala Oliver Wendall Holmes, "Every man his own Boswell," and then add, "Every field its own Bosworth". It was years before he knew what she meant.

He looked at the small, blue, cardboard box. It was about the same size as a box of staples. It was faded from years sitting unopened, first on the sunny shelf of the glass-fronted gun cabinet in his living room, and then in the dark recesses of the desk. There was a graphic of a singing bluebird on the top, a strange thing for a box of handgun bullets. He slid the lid open and poured some of the bullets into the palm of his hand.

He had always been proud of his hands. They weren't like his father's or grandfather's hands, except in size and shape. Where they differed was in quality. The hands of his father and grandfather were the hands of men who worked in the car shops, installing siding on locomotive sleepers. His grandfather could drive a nine-inch nail in three strokes, his father in five. His only attempt ended after the tenth blow when the nail bent.

But his hands were refined, gentleman's hands, despite their size. He took pains with them, as he did with everything. They were manicured perfectly, daily, and he rubbed them with an expensive imported medicated crème three times a day. When he brought a bottle of it to Chloe's apartment, she read the ingredients and laughed. "Urea," she said. "That's the principal ingredient in urine. You might just as well pee on your hands," she said, slyly adding, "If you don't already." She was like that. It used to inflame him, then exhausted him, and finally, in the last years, annoyed him.

An inconclusive chess game one drizzly afternoon had made him bold enough to cut through the year of conversation and teasing and frustration. He simply stood up and took his clothes off. When she could no longer make logical, intellectual objections (being a celebrated jurist, he was used to refuting arguments), he had had her. Desiring her, planning, hoping, had taken up the better part of his forty-fourth year. That minor change in circumstance, that one single act (the first domino, of course) had taken him from somewhat edgy desperation to a heady sense of his complete temporal success.

He floated, like an inebriated satyr, in a testosterone-laced dream. Life was, suddenly, for the first time in eons, what it was meant to be. He had an appropriate wife at home and a completely inappropriate mistress in an apartment. If her children were sometimes a trial, it was because they were young, and fatherless. His attitude toward life was simple. If your dog won't hunt, get rid of it. If your car won't start, take it to the shop. Chloe didn't see things so simply. She agonized over everything.

The bullets were shiny, no bigger than the capsule of an over-the-counter cold remedy. They were slender, cylindrical and, no getting around it, bullet-shaped. There was a small indentation in the wide end, with the company name imprinted around it. He studied it carefully, meditatively. How many of these had been extracted from the heads and bodies of hapless victims of crimes or suicides since he had bought this box? He no longer did criminal work, and was damned glad of it.

For two and a half years before he met Chloe, he knew that he would leave his wife. He would confront her with her misdeeds the instant he had concrete evidence. He would leave her, get an apartment and then marry Chloe. They would have a child the next year. It was a fete-a-complie, an accomplished fact. They talked about it every time they were together. Well, talk might have been an exaggeration. She started it.

"I want your baby," she cried one afternoon, and he had instantly responded, "And I want to give you one," and then it was over. Driving home, it sounded foolish, but before long, they were both saying it. Sometimes he would start, sometimes she, but before the end of their time together, one of them would have uttered that now-sacred mantra.

Then he got nervous, because Chloe began to talk about marriage while they were still dressed. "We don't need a piece of paper to tell us we love each other," he said. He had heard that in a movie. "Yes, we do," she said, and that was that.

When the reports came in from the detectives (and there were two), he showed them to Chloe who seemed even happier than when he gave her a diamond pendant for her birthday. He rehearsed his "I'm leaving" speech for her while she washed up after lunch. He always rehearsed in front of her before an important trial. She quizzed him on his responses to objections. He put the portfolio in the car and drove home.

His wife was still in her housecoat. She had been sick. Again. She flipped the switch on the coffee maker timer and glared at him. "That's not me," she said, sweeping her hand toward the grainy photographs. And he was stymied.

"That's our car you're standing beside," he said, pointing to it.

"No, it's not," she countered.

"Look at the damned license plate. If you don't believe me, go out in the damned garage and see for yourself. It's our car."

"No," she said calmly. "It isn't. And that's not me." But then, she pulled out the big guns and fired them point-blank at him. "What about this Chloe bitch?"

It was all over. The grand plans of the last three years. Over in a heartbeat. In five words. "What about this Chloe bitch." He slunk back to the kennel, a whipped dog. Whipped by a woman who had no feelings for him. Two wrongs, in this case, not only didn't make a right, they didn't add up to a divorce either.

The gun came open, almost too easily, too readily, in his hand. He slid the bullets into the casing, and slid it shut. He set the gun carefully, gently, tenderly on the table in front of him.

He glanced at the in-box. Piles of letters. Piles of files. It had a funny ring to it. He snorted something that in jaded circles might have passed for a laugh. But when was the last time he'd laughed, like a boy, like a human?

The Rubicon is a small river in the Romagna region of Italy that formed the border between Rome and Cisalpine Gaul. Sometime between 49 B.C. and now, they lost it. How can you lose a river? Even a small one? But one way or the other, no one knows where it is now.

The row that ensued with his wife, so much feared for so long, even before he met Chloe, was far less vitriolic than he expected. In fact, it was no more venomous than one of their standard long-range, long-term battles over any number of things, like whether or not he should buy a new gun-dog, or a sports car instead of a Mercedes, or what color Mercedes they should buy when he lost the battle for the sports car, or what school to send their college-aged son to.

Instead of going to any of the proposed schools, the bastard went off to play the guitar with a head-banging band called Screaming Pitbulls of Death. The band enjoyed limited popularity in the lower tier of Midwestern states but, he suspected, also enjoyed vast quantities of controlled substances.

That was another disappointment, his son. His only son. His only child. He had raised him to follow him into the practice of law. But in early adolescence, the boy had taken up space-age video games, staying up all night at bowling parties, and listening to what passed for music only to the disordered ear, with lyrics that sounded like reading the diagnoses out of D.S.M. III or symptom descriptions in Mercks. It made having a baby with Chloe sound reasonable, rational and desirable.

How is this done? Does one just simply raise the gun and pull the trigger? Or should he drive somewhere remote so his secretary wouldn't find him seconds afterwards in a pool of blood and indistinct organic matter? People sometimes drive to other towns, find a nice state park or roadside truck stop and end it in the parking lot. The people who have to deal with the worst mess are strangers, and not to be taken into account.

His best friend, Ted Ingersoll, had done it with pills, alcohol and carbon monoxide. Ted was nothing if not thorough. It had been seven years ago. Ted was 53. He also had kept a wife and mistress. But he and his wife divorced after she found letters in the bottom dresser drawer. She couldn't figure out why he was stupid enough to keep indiscreet letters there, and he couldn't figure out why she dared invade the sacrosanctity of his bottom dresser drawer. He moved in with the girl, and then bought a house with a swimming pool on a lake in a gated community.

Then the unthinkable happened. His wife wanted to reconcile. And then the even more unthinkable happened. He began to consider it as a viable, and increasingly attractive possibility. On the one hand, he wanted to live with her again, in the safety of their marital home, in the safety of a relationship with a woman whose demands, in retrospect, seemed fairly slight.

On the other hand, his mistress would not take it well. She was already registered at one department store and two gourmet shops. He sent her to visit her mother in Idaho. He came to David and they hashed it over and over. "Well, Ted," David concluded helplessly. "I can't tell you what to do. You'll figure it out."

In the middle of the night, painting his house in preparation for a two-week stay from his sister, he did figure it out. He had slid too far down the slippery slope and they found him, the next afternoon when he failed to show up at his office in the morning, missed his 11:00 Civil Procedures II lecture and a 3:00 hearing on the Winthrop-Mellon estate. His swelling body and an incoherent note said it all. David took over most of his civil cases and got a framed, limited edition water spaniel print from his office. They buried him in the Jewish section of the cemetery and it was all over. Who knew he was Jewish?

The books. Before he did this, he should delete the second set of books. Otherwise everyone would know he'd been cooking them for several years. It was his money, damn it. He earned every penny of it. He glanced at the I.R.S. letter as if it was a live snake coiled on his desk. He dropped a legal pad on it. The government's loss amounted to only the cost of an interstate highway sign or two each year. With a few commands to delete the autoexec.bat files, the second set of book disappeared from reality. By the time the auditors got through all the bank records, it would look like a series of simple errors in Chloe's avante-garde bookkeeping methods. She kept books like she played the piano, all improvisation.

After his wife revealed that she knew about Chloe, she began a campaign of phone harassment. She called as herself, called as a census worker, called as a phone worker, as any number of other things. Sometimes she just called and hung up, up to a dozen times a day, day after day. She didn't know about caller I.D. yet. Chloe was furious. He should stop her. But how? Best to let it go until his wife wore herself out.

Before long, he was in possession of what amounted to two malcontented wives. The effect was both cumulative and synergistic. Chloe was beginning to derail. She felt betrayed. It was foolish, of course, because what was between them hadn't really changed. True, he wasn't going to leave his wife now, though he didn't tell Chloe right away. He knew it from the first night she'd confronted him. And yes, he could no longer spend time with her like he once had. But it didn't change their relationship one iota. He still felt about Chloe the way he always had.

He didn't want her to go back to her old friends. He had taken so much effort to wean her away from the poets and musicians and lowlifes that had been orbiting her when they met, like shoddy satellites. Early in the Decline and Fall of the Relationship, she said she wanted to go back to school. He answered her as he always did. "Why do you need a degree to be the wife of a lawyer?" She would later contend, ex post facto, that this was proof that he intended to marry her. He contended it was a way to end an endless and pointless argument.

The secretary rang. His 2:00 had arrived. Should she bring him back? She should. He slid the gun into the pencil drawer just above his knees below the desktop. A thin, tallish, ruddy-haired and ruddy-faced man stepped into his office. "I have A.I.D.S.," he said, seemingly by way of introduction, shaking David's hand. "I'm doing alright, but I may need to talk to you about living wills and things like that. You do that sort of thing?"

"Yes, of course," he said, taken a little aback. Of course he knew about A.I.D.S. Of course he knew it was difficult, if not impossible to contract from only casual contact. But who knew?

"Not yet," the man continued, smiling a little. "But sometime." He took a seat in the dark leather-upholstered chair across the desk. David held his blue and red regimental tie against his chest and sat down, pulling his legal pad toward him.

"What can I do for you then?" he asked.

"Well, I want to sue my employer before it's too late."

David nodded. There were a number of cases like this going on across the country. It was the wave of the future. In the 1980s, the cry was "I was fired because I'm gay," and now it was, "I was fired because I have A.I.D.S." He wished the man would leave. But instead, the man leaned forward and took a business card from the holder on the desk.

"So tell me a little about what's going on."

"Well, I fell on a step while I was taking a carton of copy paper to the delivery van. I brought a copy of the incident report and a copy of the doctor's preliminary report."

It was a compression fracture of C-5 and C-6. "My vertebraes got whacked, you see there?" he said, pointing to the diagram.

David cringed. Vertebrae is plural already. There are no vertebraes any more than there are "true facts". But he asked all the right questions, told the man to get all necessary treatments and cooperate both with the doctors and the employer, get the disability rating and proof of lost wages and all the other ancillary verses and steps in the song and dance that had become ingrained in him. He could do it in his sleep. If only he could sleep anymore.

He stood up at length, shook the man's hand again and hoped against hope that he wouldn't come back. When he had cordially seen the man out the front door, he went to the break room and washed his hands. Orange disinfecting soap. His brother-in-law, the surgeon, had recommended it. He sprayed the chair with Glass-Rite and wiped down the desk and business-card holder. Had the man touched anything else? He sprayed disinfectant in the air.

Then he laughed. He really laughed. What difference did it make? In a few minutes, none at all. He opened the pencil drawer and stared at the gun. He put it carefully back on the desk and stared out the window at the parking lot.

There was a small female cardinal sitting on the railing of the steps that led to the parking lot. Beyond her, just beyond the awning of the porch, snow was beginning to fall in great fluffy globs. He stared at it, insentient. How long had it been since he had seen snow? Not seen snow. Snow was everywhere. He cleaned it off his front steps and his driveway and his car. It had been snowing, off and on, for days. But how long since he had seen snow like he had as a boy? How long since he had seen anything?

He smoothed the hair on the back of his head. He used to tell Chloe that when he met her he was almost six-five and had a full head of hair. Now, the doctor told him, he was six-three. He knew he was bald. He told her she'd cost him a fine head of hair and several inches here and there. It was the "there" that bothered him most. When he first said it, they both laughed. When he last said it, neither of them cracked a smile.

He turned back to the gun. It had a grey body, with a black rubber corrugated pad on either side of the butt so nervous, sweaty fingers wouldn't slip. His hands weren't sweaty, but he wiped them on his trousers, just to be sure. He picked up the gun again. He put it to his right temple, then to his mouth. Neither position felt exactly natural, and he lowered it again. Unlike a golf swing, one can't practice shooting oneself over and over until it feels right.

He glanced out the window again. The cardinal was still sitting on the railing, a brownish-red body, the same color as the leaves that still were falling from the trees, even in January. They all lie. All the teachers and parents and poets lie. They say leaves fall in the autumn, but not all do. Some leaves fall in the autumn. Some don't fall until the new growth pushes them off the tree. He hadn't noticed it. Chloe had pointed it out.

Chloe was like that before she lost her mind. She hadn't stopped seeing, or if she had, it was only a temporary affliction. But when he went back, in spirit, to his marriage (he had never left it in the flesh), she seemed to drift. He couldn't keep her amused as he had before. Why the hell do women think that men are supposed to keep them entertained? They seem to live their lives in fits and starts, only really being alive when there's a man to wine them and dine them and take them shopping or to art galleries or concerts in Chicago or New Orleans.

"What did you do today?" he would ask.

"I waited for you," she would respond with absolute simplicity. At first, he liked it, courted it. She said he demanded it, but it wasn't strictly true. It was just that, in the beginning, he wanted to see her every spare minute and that meant any time of the day or night he could get away. If he couldn't find her, he was plunged into a funk for hours, and afterwards, he let her know it, too. It was a way of telling her how much he cared. She started waiting for him, cut out her other interests so she'd be available to him during these flying rondesvous. But now, that he was back with his wife, taking her shopping and out to dinner and to Chicago or Cincinatti or Kansas City, Chloe seemed to dry up. In every way. It wasn't like he could keep these things a secret from her. He had to put a good face on it.

Finally, by their eighth year together, she would no longer condescend to have him. She grew lean and pinched and claimed to have lost twenty pounds, although she hadn't weighed much more than a hundred when they met. She still talked about getting married and having a baby with him. But it was the testosterone- or in her case, estrogen-induced dream that was talking, and surely she, too, must have known it. Finally, she got religion and repented of everything they had done. He was at a loss to figure out why he had kept her so long.

He looked back. Snow was still falling, but the little cardinal was gone. He lifted the gun again.

And then there was the secretary thing. A new client had come in when he and Chloe were at low ebb and his wife, with yet another hypochondriacal ailment, had been running him ragged between doctors' offices and the hospital. This girl was twenty-four, married with two small children, and a six-inch cleavage sunk deep into a dark blue V-neck sweater. Women have names for colors. Names like turquoise, aquamarine, topaz. To him, it was blue. But the cleavage was remarkable.

"This is a really neat office," she said, looking around and pushing her intake forms at him. She leaned over farther than she had to in order to accomplish the task. The forms were a mess, with spelling errors, errors in simple grammar.

"Reason for visit: Me and my husband are having problems with credit card collector agencies and we want the lywer (sic) to stop them."

"I always wanted to work for a lawyer," she said.

"We don't have any openings right now," he replied, automatically. The cleavage compressed as she wrapped her arms around herself and sighed. She was wearing one of those mail-order Titanic necklaces. For a small diamond pendant, she could be had. He had a visceral feeling about it.

"Oh, well." She wouldn't have dressed like that if she didn't want him to see gravity work against pulchritude, wouldn't have simpered as she did.

By the end of the interview, he had hired her for a job that hadn't previously existed before she walked into the office. But now, after a few months, her husband was calling, dropping by the office, glaring at him in that knowing way that cuckolds have. David gave her a raise that should have assuaged any scruples the man had. But the husband was back the next week after she stayed late. He'd called the office at six and there was no answer. Where exactly were they working late, he wanted to know. David said he'd sent her to the law library at the University and gone home. He smiled and shook the man's hand. Afterwards, his hand smelled of motor-grease and cigarettes. Why do women marry plebes? Why do desirable women marry plebes? She told him yesterday after lunch that Larry said it had to stop.

He snorted. It would stop, all right. He stared at the gun and raised it to his mouth again. Bad idea. The office was a rental. The cleaning charges would be exorbitant. His natural fastidiousness revolted at so violent a way of ending it.

The Rubicon is a small, lost river in the Romagna region of Italy. The River Jordan is deep and wide and I cannot get over. Or something like that. He had distant relatives who had gone Baptist on them.

He stared out the window again. There were three small, fat, black or brown-bodied birds on the telephone wires outside. How many years had he spent looking down, down at life, for fear reality would overwhelm him? How long since he had seen anything.

As a child, he had seen. He had reveled in seeing. He had seen details in the gills and scales of the fish he pulled from the lagoon at the city park. He had seen the details in the pin on his mother's fur-collared coat when she told him Truman had been elected to a second term. He had seen details in the chicken wire of the rabbit cages in the back yard that his father tended so carefully. He had seen details in the clouds, in the puddles, in ice.

Manuel might have been the last person he saw in complete detail, green-blue veins on brown wrists holding the leather-wrapped steering wheel of his father's M.G. They were all too young to drive, but did anyway, too fast down Manchester Avenue with too many glasses of beer in their bellies from a German beer garden that turned a winking eye on underage Catholic prep school boys. But from then on, somehow, the light that allowed fine, detailed inspection dimmed, until only the gross things mattered, jobs and conquests and money and cars and detailing, not the details themselves.

For a while, for a brief while, he had seen Chloe, until he had possessed her completely, and then, within months, she too, was a blur. Everything was a blur. And this was as good as it was going to get. What followed, inevitably in the course of human life, was deterioration, a diminution of income, of health, even of the physical body, and in its wake, he still wouldn't know why the hell he was here.

The Rubicon. The Styx. There was a buzz on the intercom. "Your 3:00 is here," came the voice of yet another faithless wife. Damn women. Damn them all.

"Alright," he said. "Be there in a minute." He slipped the gun back into the drawer, buttoned his suit coat, rose and met his client.

There is no Rubicon and he was no Caesar.