ALT. COUNTRY - 015
How the new life started to go bad for Kooper was by being bad a little more often than it was good. When they took baptism, one after the other, at the corner church’s “Power Encounter”—Kooper holding the edges of the bathtub as if a thrill ride were about to begin—Carrie was moved. He was going to be her Christian servant-husband. Together they sang hymns before breakfast. God had come in human form and died for Kooper’s soul and that ought to have closed the bidding.
But at times pleasing Carrie left him empty, as if he had lost the way of real manhood and was only conforming to gain her approval. She seemed happier somehow than Kooper did with their new churchy friends—she was a more wholehearted joiner overall—and he wondered if he would always have this feeling of being simultaneously inside a community and out of it. Like at an amusement park, but with everything closed. Purgatory might be heaven but with the wrong set of tickets.
Plenty of days Kooper walked the neighborhood, and his block couldn’t have been more unlike Sherman Oaks—a row of married barracks, drab even in the heart of leafy Berkeley. Drab but a place to begin. Whereas Dickens Street, in the heart of L.A., had been an English Garden, ivied with the past—a place where buried things lived.
Yet for all their differences, the two worlds shared a common map. There was the customary evangelical church around the corner, and the customary record store and the customary garden, like Southern California embassies established ahead of him.
He had landed a job at a halfway house for the learning disabled. It paid next to nothing, and he found it hard sometimes to believe that Carrie, with her new success, could value his material contribution. One night, in a fugue of loserhood, he came home from work deliberately late, hoping it would teach her to need him more. It was a childish thing to do. And he realized that the honesty would slip from their relationship if he didn’t confess, so he sat himself before her on the bedside the next morning and told the truth.
But his voice came out boyish—weak beyond belief. And then she was possibly a little too approving and smug. The next time it happened, he decided that a second confession for the same type of crime honors nobody, and he just let it go.
Dawdling at a computer terminal in the halfway house, Kooper stumbled onto a pornographic web site one night, letting porn find him. He returned several times to the web site that week, drawing from its starry, Vegas plenitude an idea that the whole world had arrived there ahead of him, through some portal to a lawless universe. Salem after Dark. He wondered if he might encounter a photo of his old neighbor’s sister there; he wondered if it would all end at the stockinged feet of his wife. Repenting later, he clung to Carrie on his bed, conscious of the fragility of every gift.
An ancient insecurity snuck up on him. The old romantic scar. Leaning against him, almost dozing in the car one night while Kooper drove home from Ralphs, Carrie confided, laughing, that she’d almost not married him at all.
“You didn’t know this, but I made a deal with God. I was so terrified the marriage might be a mistake. You were picking me up from work, and I decided that if I didn’t see a sign of some kind when you drove up—something in your eyes or a light from the sky—I would leave through the back door of the studio and never speak to you again. Instead, you smiled and waved, and I had this moment. . . as if you were waving from the other end of a lifetime we would struggle through together—and I knew. Whew!”
Kooper was dismayed. “So, if you hadn’t felt this—sign, right then—you were going to what?”
Carrie pulled herself up from his shoulder. “Kooper. You’re focusing on the wrong part of the story.”
“God doesn’t always come through with a sign just because you ask him to. Don’t test the Lord, Jesus said.”
Carrie said again, “You’re missing the whole point.”
After several minutes, Kooper had not managed to hide his unease: Some disclosure from him was going to be required. “What’s wrong?” she kept asking, and he tried to assure her, “Maybe nothing. I don’t know if I can really discuss it yet.”
This seemed to make her angry, so Kooper explained himself. “Look, it was just kind of a blow—what you said about nearly leaving me. I had no idea. I can’t just recover on a dime.”
“Oh, here we go,” Carrie groaned. “You’re going to punish me now.”
“Punish you! How’s it punishing you if I have a feeling?”
“You think I’m going to share openly with you again if you don’t forgive me for saying one stupid thing?” she demanded. “You’re going to shut me out for that?”
“It’s not about forgiving. It’s not just some stupid thing, you were telling the truth.”
“You’re choosing this,” she informed him. “You’re punishing me, Kooper. I’ve been shut out before. I won’t live with another set of parents. Oh, Jesus, get me out of here.”
It took half the night to make up, after which Kooper was hardly less spooked, but his anger now turned toward life itself: for how unstable its goodness was, for how much understanding it required, for how instantly your whole life could turn south. Until that moment, he had been fooling himself that if you married the right woman, you had tamed the whole man-woman proposition, that there was no slope of terror, no backside beyond every peak of contentment.
She was nursing demons of her own. He could drive her to near violence, for one thing, by pointing out her pattern of getting fooled by a former lover such as Tanner, or by a random salesman on the phone. He accused her of trying to mother everybody without ever having had children herself. It was a stupid remark, in light of her past miscarriage, pregnant again or not. He began to flirt with Emily, the radio station producer. He apologized often and sincerely. Carrie tried to lecture him on his sniping motives. She hung her postcard of Hannibal, Missouri, above the desk that Kooper liked to think was his.
But just often enough he embraced her and allowed her to overstate his faults, until she was ashamed of her hardness toward him. And he knew (knew! Thank God!) that no overstatement of a person’s faults was honestly so far off, and they made love with a thankfulness that only each other understood.