Dumped After Decades
Short story by Michael Botur
Before Sallyanne even realised Donald was leaving her for Annaliese, Donald began appearing around town with her. A daughter of one of the board members of Toastmasters, Annaliese kept the minutes and was in charge of the accounting. She was part of a family considered nobles in the motivational speaking community, plus she was in her 40s, and quiet and altogether fresh and trouble-free.
The 55 year old man and his 44 year old lover were spotted at the races wearing matching hats with feathers in them, eating each other’s necks with miniature bottles of Lindauer in one hand; they were seen at Vinaigrette, inspecting chunks of steaming lamb on the ends of their forks. They were seen in a sauna together, her feet on his thighs. The community knew about Donald and Annaliese getting together before Sallyanne did. It wasn’t covert, secretive, or undercover. It wasn’t an affair. Donald had hit 33 years of marriage. He deserved a change. A new wife wasn’t that different from a new suit. He’d won the Toastmasters Supreme Speaker Award in 1999, 2004 and 2012 and in recent years had become so assured of winning Toastmasters competitions that he was made an honorary fellow. It was this newfound celebrity which inspired Donald to tell Sallyanne after a month without communication that he was filing for divorce. This, he declared to Sallyanne in a text message. He hadn’t been to the house since Christmas, when Donald had drunk too much of the brandy Sallyanne had ordered, hoping it would melt his animosity. Donald had gulped his orange liquor and commented on the breasts of the weather presenter while chinking glasses with their son Christopher, who kept looking at his mum to see if she was going to stand up for herself. Why bother? Donald was part Hoapili Pacific royalty, with deep brown cow-eyes and leather skin and an oil slick of black hair. Dyeing her hair and giving him the biggest portion of chicken wasn’t glue enough. She’d never really deserved him. Even the pamphlet Donald had pressed into her hands while Annaliese honked the car horn had told her to move on.
It was 3am on a weeknight when she looked at the calendar, worked out Donald had been away more nights than he’d been home this month, stood over the sink, rubbed Olivani on her finger, wriggled her wedding ring until it fell unexpectedly down the plughole, and gave a final sigh.
Jeremy was secretary of the literary society. Sallyanne met with him only in the interest of trying to decide whether the Society was for her, but Jeremy was fascinated to hear she was being divorced. He poured bourbon into his long black and quoted Rimbaud and tried to convince Sallyanne she should be valued more. She sipped her coffee and felt guilty about the cost of the coffee depriving a small African charity child of a day’s food. She wanted to blurt out how maddening the desperate hunt for a female divorce lawyer had been. She wanted to roll video of Donald on his knees grovelling back in the 80s when no theatre company hired him for 18 months. She wanted proof that she’d up her transcription hours to 55 a week so the 30 year old woman and her 23 year old paramour didn’t miss a mortgage payment. Instead Jeremy brought her up to speed about what books the circle had been studying then reached across the table and asked permission to caress a strand of her hair like an anthropologist.
As they were preparing to leave, a girl in a leather jacket hopped off the back of a moped, strolled into the cafe and served her with papers, pointing the rolled-up folder at her head like a pistol.
‘It’s okay now,’ Jeremy told her, wobbling as he stood, patting his hip flask, ‘You’re free now.’
There was a three-way phone call with their daughter, who was trying to enjoy her year teaching in Taipei without hassle, and didn’t want to know about her parents’ sill lovers tiff, some texts with Christopher, who said he didn’t want to “stir shit up” and finally a congratulatory phone call from Donald, who was pleased to announced he could get cellphone reception in Bali. Donald explained the two of them breaking up was actually a blessing. At 63, Sallyanne was going to live longer than him anyway. It would be cruel of her to deny Donald the right to make the most of his life. He had to perform. He had to make love on exotic beaches. He had a right to applause, to Race Days, to photographs in the paper, to brandy and Viagra and steaks of fine wagyu. The sun would set over Denpasar, but he wouldn’t let it set over his life. Donald reminded Sallyanne of the trophies he’d won. The word ‘trophy’ pricked Sallyanne and she heard Annaliese’s voice implore Donald to hang up the phone and come party. ‘Thank you for phoning,’ Sallyanne told the man who’d ruined her life. She invited him to send her the bill for the call, drank a cup of tea, stroked her light brown hair in the mirror, felt like strangling it, read the newspaper, looking for some sort of lighthearted girl power column, some Miserable Pride thing, something Bridget Jonesy, maybe just some reassuring statistics about the number of divorced couples who reunite, and then she was kidnapped by sleep.
Sallyanne sipped her breakfast cappuccino and stared at the yard. Too expansive. Ostentatious, really. More than she deserved.
When she tipped her coffee grounds into the sink, it bubbled back up and oozed stench. On her knees in vile water, Sallyanne struggled to unfasten the holders and release the u-pipe. There was a smelly lump of fat in there with a wedding ring in it.
Early in their relationship, Donald was always hungry. He could travel with a show for two months then be out of work for three. He never had the money to grow fat, back then. Her fondest photo showed her mashing wedding cake on his cheekbone. Sallyanne poured a glass of Chablis and opened up the internet to find a plumber. Facebook distracted her instead. On Donald’s profile was a status update. He’d tagged Annaliese:
A bliss in proof, and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. The sonnet describing the way men are madly misled down a route of lust, ‘past reason,’ ‘mad in pursuit.’ The sonnet he’d recited from memory at the front of the church in 1982. He’d given the sonnet to Annaliese now, apparently, expecting her to be impressed or something. Donald the film buff, inspired by playboys who he once stooped in front of the screen and aped back when Sallyanne had bought him the largest screen on the dinner party circuit. Donald the imitator. Donald with the black, expressive actor’s eyebrows and irises that absorbed all the colour in the room.
Donald’s nationwide speaking tour saw him opening the Agricultural and Pastoral show out on the coast where truckloads of champagne were carted in for motivational orators who could entrance the populace. Annaliese was there at every hilarious speech, always stage left, always instigating the applause with frantic hummingbird hands, a microphone with a headpiece clipped around her face, her cheeks pinned back, white teeth exposed, ready with a bouquet of lilies to thank Donald for his inspiring words. Sallyanne only stumbled upon the report on Donald’s tour farming section of the paper because she’d searched the paper and found nothing more relevant than a column of advice for widowers. Nothing applicable to the life of a freshly-divorced mature woman. An empty periodical, the paper was, utterly lacking in relevance.
She couldn’t stop reading and re-reading Donald’s puff piece. While she couldn’t object to Donald’s apparent success now that he was free of ballast, and couldn’t object to the $180 it had cost her to have her fake-coloured hair trimmed and clipped so the regrowth of silver now constituted 50 percent of her hair, what she could object to was the photograph of Donald emceeing the Honey Queen Spelling Bee and the photo labelling the headpieced wife as Sallyanne. The wife of the Honey Queen Spelling Bee emcee was skinny and youngish and rejuvenated Donald Hoapili. Sallyanne was none of those things, and she marched into the newspaper editor’s office and demanded a correction.
Cooper Stevens gulped nervously before asking Sallyanne her maiden name. For a moment Sallyanne was stumped. Maiden?
At 63, with silver seeping into her scalp and a saggy lizard-throat, Maiden seemed a joke. Sallyanne finally remembered she’d once answered to Lebedoff, back when she took a single theatre paper during the single-year diploma she had to undergo to qualify as a medical transcriber. She gave the name Lebedoff to Cooper Stevens and he told her since the columnist who wrote about llama welfare had passed away, there happened to be a spot for a fresh columnist if she could produce 500 quality words each week. Although she wanted to pause the earth’s rotation, ask if there would be problems if some of the words she used were particularly long, she found herself straightening out her dress, shaking Cooper’s hand to agree that yes, she knew how to type and yes, she could produce 500 words each week and yes, she was available right now for a head-and-shoulder profile photo since she’d put on her best pearls and cardigan for this morning’s confrontation. Yes, Sallyanne Lebedoff, not née Hoapili, not née anything, would supply 500 words each week in a column to be named – unless anyone objected – Dumped After Decades.
Sallyanne pushed a $200 cheque across the table into Jeremy’s fingers and begged him to teach her how to write.
He told her he’d think about it, and responded ten days later, when Cooper Stevens was threatening to sever the agreement for the column because she’d supplied nothing.
There are only two rules in writing, my dear: First, write what you know – the slippery u-pipe, the ring in the sink, the chest that refuses to sob. The overstuffed pantry with noboby to eat it. The purchase of a single plum so light it doesn’t show up on the supermarket scanner.
Second: write what you’re only just beginning to know. Anticipation. Waking in the morning, not knowing who you’ll go to bed with. Excited breath. Adrenaline. Risk.
Sallyanne Blu-tacked Jeremy’s advice on the wall in her office, emptied the bottle of Baileys into her coffee mug and began.
After Dumped After Decades became talked-about and clipped and photocopied and stuck on the walls of the library, Sallyanne was quickly accepted into the literary society. The society was an octagon of frail women nervously clutching bundles of library books they were afraid to criticise. There was also young Jeremy, who worked by day as the archivist at the council. Jeremy sat through each monthly meeting scratching his bushy beard and fiddling with the flask tucked inside his tweed jacket. Jeremy wrote the group’s electronic newsletter since he was the only person who knew much about computers and filled half of the newsletter with Dumped After Decades, lovingly copied and pasted from the website.
At first, the meetings were half-consumed with just getting the bloody radiator to work and ensuring everybody had a hot water bottle to sit on. Jeremy interviewed Sallyanne three times in five months for the newsletter because the others in the group simply had no news and Jeremy said excerpts from his novel could only be reproduced after his death. Dumped After Decades was talked about firstly on radio, then essays examined the politics which the column represented, and hits to the Dumped After Decades page on the paper’s website climbed exponentially and the column was quickly syndicated nationwide.
When winter thinned to let a little blue in the sky, Jeremy sent her an email which wasn’t a newsletter at all. It was a letter written in the form of an acrostic poem. Each letter of Sallyanne’s name, structured left on the pager, began a word reinforcing Jeremy’s message: he was besotted with her. S for the lode of silver in her hair, A for her anhedonic selfless self-care. Jeremy loved Iris Murdoch. He loved Angela Merkel. He loved all older women, and promised in his email he would hara-kiri himself any day at her behest.
He signed the email, Yours, eternally, and added a postscript.
Ps. I looked it up. Hoapili translates as ‘attached to the bosom.’
Jeremy lived just three kilometres away, in a boarding house near the council archives building, yet he wrote to her every day. Grab the first words that come to you, because that’s your true voice, he told her. You may not be a strong public speaker, but Donald Hoapili, that privileged simpleton, will never have an adoring audience of 200,000. You are loved in nursing homes. You are loved in the towering offices of lonely executives. You are loved by the lonely.
Jeremy’s throbbing young lust didn’t stir anything in her except the desire to Skype her son, who was up at midnight with some kind of glass pipe steaming on his computer desk and a pile of rock climbing gear draped over the couch behind him. He was watching cartoons but agreed to pause the TV. Christopher sucked his pipe and nodded at his mum’s complaints before finally interrupting her. ‘Listen to all the shit you just told me about him. I love the old man to bits but he doesn’t sound like much of a loss. You got rid of him. That’s good.’
‘But he’s taken everything!’ she blurted, belching dry steam into the camera. Her eyes weren’t wet but her face was melting.
‘He got you that sweet gig in the paper, though.’
She sucked the snot back into her nose and changed the subject, asking her son if he ever had a kid in his class at school, an English nerd named Jeremy who wore a trenchcoat. Christopher rummaged in his frontal cortex and responded Yeah, I think so. How come?
Donald phoned Sallyanne to congratulate her on her success. He compared it to his own success – receiving a star on the Lips of Fame listing within the Toastmasters website.
Although Dumped After Decades was doing well, Donald had some advice for Sallyanne which, because it was coming from a man synonymous with success, Sallyanne would be wise to heed. She roamed the big empty halls with the cordless phone pressed against her ear. It was cavernous, a four bedroom mansion with an oak stairwell and a chandelier and iron and teak detail, plus a $100,000 sound system which piped classical music into every room, and art and tiles and double glazed windows. Warm and luxurious, when filled with people, but Sallyanne simply would not be able to keep up with the property taxes and rates on her own, Donald explained, unless she relinquished her half of the property. Even with her pension drawing close it would be a struggle. Donald mentioned her pension three times within the phone call and finally Sallyanne’s lack of income pricked her. They were offering her up to $350 per hour for urgent transcription of medical notes (she had 36 years of experience, a foot pedal and the best transcription software, after all) but Sallyanne would have happily spent that $350 for the privilege of being left alone to chop up manure and mulch it into her rose bed. She hadn’t said yes to transcription work since Donald had rubbished their marriage. Now she was getting just $50 a week for newspaper columns. Donald would have to phone off shortly, he said, as there was a regatta launching for which Donald had selflessly agreed to crack the bottle of Dom Perignon over the bow of the lead superyacht, following which he would bless it with a traditional Tahitian prayer. Long story short: Sallyanne’s house –where the hysterically laughing family had once thrown snowballs of fondant icing at one another when they didn’t have any snow on Christmas day – would have to be sold, and although the title had always been in Sallyanne’s name because Donald had bad debt from all those years on London’s west end, Sallyanne agreed the decent thing to do would be to give Donald half. He’d been there for her for over 30 years, after all.
Her laptop warbled in the night. She sat up and asked the blackness, ‘Donald?’
She pulled her robe tightly around her breasts, tiptoed to her office where she found an incoming Skype call from a Jeremy. He was so drunk he was holding both sides of his monitor to keep his face in front of the camera.
Fogging the camera eye with whiskey breath, Jeremy began reading a piece describing a heroine reaching “magnificent classical maturity, the maturity of marble which takes tens of years to sculp, hard flesh, novel peaks, smile lines, a muscular back, forearms with undersides soft as cream and a noble face with a constellation of dots etched by the sun, one dot for every time her creator has returned to acknowledge her beauty.” She asked him what Shakespeare play the serene lyrics derived from. Jeremy shook his head and laughed. ‘No hackneyed old fuggoff Shakespeare bullshit,’ he slurred, ‘Just me and you.’
Donald put out his self-help book Successful at Success and drove to libraries north, south, east and west to launch it. The media release came with a photo of Donald with Annaliese clutched against him, grinning so hard his lips shone with drool. Cooper Stevens, terrified of being yelled at again, phoned Sallyanne up and asked her if she was okay with running Donald’s story. She helped Cooper correct the description of Annaliese from “Mr Hoapili’s assistant and bride, who hales from Russia” to “Mr Hoapili’s assistant and bride, who hales from Ukraine.”
‘It woulda really stung, when he didn’t get that DJ gig,’ Cooper mentioned casually. Sallyanne was in her kitchen, bundling enough forks and plates to feed a family into a box to give to the Salvation Army. In a week she’d begin house-sitting for some Canadians who spent eight months of the year in Japan. She wouldn’t be in the house when it was auctioned.
Cooper explained Donald took it really hard when he auditioned to host that slot on 107.7 which Donald wanted to call Breakfast with the Toastmaster. The Dutch multimedia company that owned Cooper’s paper also owned the station, so word had trickled down to Cooper. Anyone would’ve been depressed if they went through a through a three hour audition then were told they unfortunately looked a bit older than what was wanted, Cooper explained. Sure, sure, no one was denying Donald had a voice for radio. It’s just that everything’s about billboards these days, Cooper had heard, and if they put some unheard-of D-lister on a billboard they would lose listeners on a daily basis.
Cooper couldn’t believe Donald hadn’t mentioned the shame he’d been carrying.
Sallyanne was getting calls every day begging her to write up the notes of plastic surgeons every day for as much as $400 an hour. She didn’t have the stomach for it any more and asked her writing circle what she should do. Jeremy ordered the old ladies to shut the fuck up and kneeled in front of his lady. After nearly 40 years of obeisance, she didn’t have to feel guilty about declining people. Although she would love the money, she was happier moving around alpaca poo now that she had a great compost hookup. Her legs moved freely in the short shorts she was finally allowed to wear without being told she was “tarting up the place.” Her light, buttery skin appreciated the tickle of the breeze creeping up her inner thighs.
Housesitting was a satisfying way to make a little income until her pension came in, and maybe beyond. Housesitting had taken Sallyanne to an alpaca farm, a ranch with a single bull, and she’d also endured a week looking after a medicinal cannabis crop, turning the hoses on every night and off every morning, even though she felt like bacteria were wriggling all over her skin the whole time she was there.
One winter dawn, Sallyanne chased a stray alpaca calf onto the highway in her nightie. She ran faster than she realised she could, her legs unencumbered with pants or shorts. A blue Ford truck was slowing to see if she needed help when she finally managed to wrap her arms around she calf’s oily neck as it bleated and kicked. The wind lifted the flaps of her nightie and showed a tight pair of lips with a puff of steel wool peeking out of the margins of the knickers. The Ford driver raised his cap with respect. While the two of them tied the beast onto the tray of his truck for transportation back to its pen, his eyes licked her skin off. He left her his business card and reminded her three times that he knew a great place if she fancied a glass of wine sometime. His mates would so soooo stoked if he could prove he met THE Sallyanne from that thingy in the paper. He snaped a selfie with her on his muddy cellphone. She let him kiss her hand and drop back at the farm.
These random escapades give her tonnes of material for her column. She was offered international syndication, which would pay EUR1000 a week. She drove three hours to the big smoke for a meeting in a high-rise to talk syndication with a pair of nice young women all the way from Den Haag. The deal outlined in the inch-thick contractual agreement impaled her on a barb of fear. The papers reminded her of the divorce documents pointed at her temple like a gunbarrel. The international syndication contract required her to write every single week “About your identity as a strong, confident mature woman who was unfairly dumped.” Sallyanne asked for a toilet break, braced herself against the mirror and stared at her wrinkles. She returned to the table and told them the identity they wanted wasn’t hers.
At tonight’s book circle, Sallyanne is going to tell her people that she is coming down to earth. She’s hit her apogee. The orbit is over.
She has to soothe her boy first, though. Alcohol is melting through Jeremy’s organs. Part of his stomach bulges out through his trench coat. His last newsletter editorial has given a code people can use to read his novel on his website once his imminent death is complete. She tries to choose a part of Jeremy to squeeze – his bony shoulder? His knobbly thigh? – and settles on his hands. She leans in and says to Jeremy, ‘What’s your novel about, anyway?’
Jeremy takes a belt of whiskey and coughs blood on his sleeve and leans down conspiratorially behind the tea trolley. ‘It’s about a buttkicking heroine who spends her life… .’ He pauses to take another drink and shudders. ‘Spends her life taking care of other people. Never stops to look in the mirror. Realise how amazing she is.’
Everybody has been talking about that nice Nigerian chappie’s new novel, but they’ve paused to listen to Jeremy’s words – words which could be his last, considering the way Jeremy rolls off his seat and lurches towards the toilet, slurring a farewell to everybody, telling them it’s been a pleasure.
Sallyanne grabs the tail of his coat and pulls him back. It’s been a year and she hasn’t once raised her voice, but she’s sick to death of this silliness. ‘YOUNG MAN, YOU WILL SIT IN THE CORNER UNTIL NINE O’CLOCK, AFTER WHICH I WILL TAKE YOU TO BED.’
She snatches his hip flask out of his hands, bins it then smooths her dress out. Everyone is silent. They look to Sallyanne to see if they can keep going.