Martial Plans

By Stuart Ross


Dr. Bill Wheeling, an east side pediatrician with a thriving practice, agrees to help Janice, his wife, explore her desire for another man. They purchase one from an ad in the back of the weekly. Dr. Bill isn’t so sure. Janice knows exactly who she wants. The sex worker is in school for nursing and he is very good. Three months later Janice leaves Bill for a different, less-directly purchased man, her dermatologist. Three months after that she leaves her facialist, one of the most sought after in town, for the hospitalist at the post-acute care center where her mother, Kathy Franklin, is recovering from a hideously deforming car accident, and never recovering from lupus. Janice calls Dr. Bill for emotional support, but her mother still dies. Then, at Mrs. Franklin’s funeral, she tells Bill’s Dad, Dr. Julius Wheeling, that his son forced her to buy what she calls a male whore. A few weeks later, nearing a sudden and shockingly aggressive death caused by a rare genetic disease long dormant, Dr. Wheeling curses his son’s perversions, and claims it isn’t the passing and subsequent upholding by the Supreme Court of the Affordable Care Act which is killing him, and it isn’t the genetic disease killing him, but rather that his son is an invert. Bill’s final words to his father are: I didn’t even want the man, Dad! Getting married was the biggest mistake of my life! Janice changes her name back to Franklin from Wheeling and resumes working part-time as the west side’s most sought after radiologist. Two months later she dies giving birth to the original sex worker’s seed, which her new husband, the unaffiliated hospitalist, a veritable saint, promises to raise in her memory. Many deaths, many flames, many secrets, many memories, many persecutions, the purging of domestic tenderness, a familiar enough bulimia. An act of voluptuous violence, according to its documentarians, carries with it philosophical heft, an indescribable magic. If your ambition is a career in the creative arts, it helps to have an unhappy childhood, as an aid to memory, and for a crunchy sense of disappointment. But what if you have an unhappy childhood and you’re just a bunch of regular people who work in healthcare?



Maybe a man is being released from prison after serving 2 of 5 for an act of illegal bravery. Maybe he stood up for another man’s wife in a bar brawl. Maybe he rescued a same-sex wedding couple from a police beat down. Maybe this brawl took place in an old mining town in southwestern Colorado, right outside a saloon with a swinging wood door. Maybe this same-sex wedding took place in Asheville, North Carolina. Maybe the prison guard is returning the items held for the man at the time of his incarceration. Maybe loose cigarettes, a gold monogrammed cigarette lighter, and a white-bordered, black-and-white photo of an old flame in a bathing costume are falling onto a dirty silver tray. Maybe the releasee’s best friend is picking him up. Maybe this friend felt guilty for the way his old buddy ended up in the can, and visited him every chance he got. Maybe this friend felt guilty, but never bothered visiting. Maybe the releasee’s friend is going to be standing against a boat-sized Chevy with a bomber jacket over his shoulder, one with a faux-fur collar trim and slanted zippered pockets above the breast. Maybe he’s going to be standing against a Dodge Charger with one foot up against the back wheel, wearing a bomber jacket with zippered pockets only on the sleeve. Maybe he’s going to be standing in front of his father’s hand-me-down Buick Century wearing only a fitted black t-shirt. Maybe the releasee will say to his friend, hey, I’m in the mood for a juicy steak from Wilma’s, or a visit to the cathouse over on Washington. Maybe the friend will say, kill my wife. Maybe kill my wife for me. Maybe kill my wife for me, please. Maybe it isn’t wrong for a free man to assume a man just released from prison is dying to go back. Maybe there are no wives on the inside.



The middle-aged man’s job as a medical device salesman involved heavy travel, which he eagerly pursued after he embraced his wife one morning and she said, You smell like you’ve been sleeping for a long time. He drove on down the road. He was Crow’s “vending machine repairman driving down this road more than twice.” One of his favorite parts of business travel was that every city in the country got to project their local flavors onto his national good looks. In Boston he was a tight end, in Birmingham a NASCAR driver, in Manhattan a Top 250 lawyer, in Oakland, a boxer, in Las Vegas, a plain dealer, in Austin, a vegan cowboy, in Detroit, an indefatigable reformer, in Omaha, an ordinary actuary, in Nashville, a reliable session hand, in Asheville, an internet-sanctioned minister, in Minot, a fracking tycoon, in Phoenix, a golf caddy, in Seattle, a lumberjack, in Denver, a snowboarder, in Portland (OR), a dietician, in Portland (ME), a serial killer.



Do robots marry? If they do, will they tire of being married? Will robots divorce? Do they understand what “Roman” means? Do they sweat? Do they live in cities? Are they naked? Are they strong? Do robots feel pain? Do they make mistakes? If they don’t marry today, will they one day marry? Will they have their own toilets? Do they know when it’s Sunday in the deeper sense? Do they have sex? Do they experience sexual pleasure? Is having sex essential in a robot marriage? Are robots naked? Do robots have fashion trends? Are they socialists? Do they feel better about themselves? Do they ever buy a nice set of speakers? Do robots have the ability to report an assault, to come forward? Do robots use telephones? Do robots deserve the vote? Do robots understand the difference between an animal used for a pet and an animal used for meat? Do robots dream, if and when they sleep? Are robots human? Do tiny robots have tiny hearts? Do big robots have big hearts? Do robots have high technology? Are they observable? Do robots sing and dance? Are robots Greek? Are you a robot?



The man and the woman, seated at separate tables, enjoyed the airport hotel happy hour. Soon enough it was dinner time. The woman, who had been staring blankly at the departures and arrivals board, ordered a Cornish hen with grilled asparagus. The man, who had been reading USA Today, was pretty hungry. He ordered a complete Wesselmann’s Still Life No. 15, which included a grilled steak, a waxy lemon, a waxy apple, a path leading into the woods, a George Washington mother-of-pearl, American flag fruit snacks, and a 750ml bottle of Four Roses. To start. The woman’s food arrived first. She sat about twenty feet in front of the man, alone, like him, at a table meant for 4. He thought there was something familiar about the back of her head. A poodle popped out of her designer bag and sat on the arm of one of the chairs. The man sat straight up. He thought he recognized the poodle as his wife’s poodle, Priscilla. Just then the waiter arrived with the man’s path leading into the woods, and the man said, Thank You. He lowered his fork and steak knife to the path, but, looking up, met the piercing, lustrous eyes of Priscilla. The man’s ears pricked. Just then the man heard the woman say to the front desk clerk, who was now the bartender, and in the morning would be the chef, I think I changed my mind, does the hummus wrap contain nuts? The man recognized the woman’s voice immediately. She was indeed his wife. Hey! The man shouted. The woman turned back, and said, Oh no, it’s you! She ran toward the bathrooms, which she found under construction, and, reading the sign, ran to the restrooms across the lobby in the 24-hour fitness center. The man leapt up to follow her. Priscilla barked at the man. Poodles have a hard time making up their mind and tend to be interested in something for only a few days before moving on to something else, but Priscilla had long hated the man. The man gripped the knife in his hand, and, swallowing the last of his undercooked path leading into the woods, walked slowly in the direction of his wife’s screaming dog.



Thom’s wife, his large failing wife, who had been a Perfect 10 Megan Fox type when he married her, now resembled more an imaginary number version of Susan Sarandon. She sat on the couch, sweating, because Thom forbid air conditioning. They lived in Phoenix but Thom didn’t want the hassle of cleaning a pool. She was an oily wife, because she couldn’t stop eating dark chocolate, as she skimmed, irrelevant because she never left Phoenix, the magazine from New York. Annals of Yesteryears, Theater Matters, The Letter From Houston, Something About Drake. Thom broke his leg. Thom’s broken leg healed. He emailed his old golf buddies. He swore he was going to kill his wife if he didn’t get out of the house and into nature, which for him had always meant a golf course.



Learning one’s role in a married couple’s political contribution is not easy. If there are plants nearby, watch them grow. Certain couples have certain political opinions they must express. This wife would rather vote for this man than this woman, and her husband has decided to stay home this year. He might even stay home next year. He might even stay home the year after that. What are we really talking about when we finally agree? The Politics of Marriage becomes the one-way interaction between Ted Talk performer and his captive audience. Marriage is the beautician tired of cutting hair, who forgets to clean up the sides, clean up behind the ears, trim the sideburns, or take pity on the nose hairs. Many well-educated people are not smart. The only eidetic memory will be the one of death. This is Adams’ “static in the attic.” This is Carlisle’s “all that's left of my strength is a memory.” An executive presence moves mountains. An executive presence moves on. That’s why executives say, Let’s move on.



Take my wife, please. Take me away and bring me long lush nights. Take me for a spin in your new car, snugglepuss. Take from the dresser a dry cleaning twistie and put it in the bags we use for recycling. Take the wire hangers to the regular trash. Take a long time in the shower. Take a weekend trip to Boston to visit your oldest friend. Take in a Sunday night movie to extend the weekend. Take our daughter to her bowling lesson, to ice skating class. Take a number at the deli. Take a break, munchkin, and a looser approach. Take a pill. Take what’s mine. Take a strike. Take a life.



The man held his nose and blew. His ears barely popped. The man couldn’t move. He removed the blanket to reveal bruised, hideously deformed legs, knotted and spoiled with an unusual grade of cord, something approaching a standard issue military twine. He looked around. The pilot had fibbed when he said it would be a full flight. The path leading into the woods was still coming up on him. The man said to himself, There’s the stewardess. She asked, Would you like anything to drink? Yes, he said, Do you have the end of the story? Of course, she said, Would you like the whole can? He said, That’d be great. She smiled and handed him an individually-wrapped cookie. He asked, Does it contain nuts? No, she said, No traces of nuts. Well, the man said, I would like some nuts. And I would like my nuts to contain nuts. And I would like to trace a blade around my nuts, because I killed Priscilla. The flight attendant smiled and welcomed the man to sit back, relax, and enjoy the remainder of the flight.


Stuart Ross is a writer living in Chicago.

© 2016