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Breakfast with Chump

Short Story


Published December 20, 2006 at 5:00 a.m.

John and Happy had lived together for five years. They were very busy people. They lived in the suburbs and worked in the city and had as many friends as a busy life would permit. When they decided to go ahead and get married (in October, the only month with a little bit of room on both their calendars), they started searching for the right person to do the job.

John had grown up as an Episcopalian, Happy as a Unitarian, and they both felt they wanted a certain, though controlled, level of religion in the ceremony. When a colleague of John's recommended Ed, whose Peace & Unity Church was situated in the rundown heart of the city and was known for serving lavish feasts to the homeless, they were intrigued. Ed had facilitated a retreat John's colleague had attended, and he described him as a short, bald guy who rocked with personal energy.

At first Happy was put off by his eyes, which she called blue bullets. When he zeroed in on her with those eyes, she got a whiff of something dangerous, a glimpse of a dark and rolling ocean - too rough for recreational swimming, she told John with a small laugh. But as they started meeting with him to "hammer out" their vows (as Ed had called their first, shaky attempts to articulate their views about marriage), Happy grew to depend on those eyes to tell her when she was on solid ground. When she was speaking from her heart, they shone at her like beacons. When she indulged herself in "formulaics," Ed's term for thoughtless clichés, they grew opaque. John's first approach to writing his end of their vows was to offer a handful of sexy passages from the Song of Solomon with a few rather clever annotations. "That's what you really want?" Ed asked, and John grinned.

"I believe it's a crowd pleaser, Ed."

"Could we try again?" Ed asked. "Maybe something more personal?"

When John asked if it was really necessary, Happy reached for his hand with an earnest look and John said he'd go back to the drawing board and see what was on it.

When their statements were finished to the satisfaction of all three parties, Ed suggested the couple seek pre-nuptial counseling by a professional. John laughed. "I thought that's what you were, Ed, a professional." (John enjoyed calling him Ed. People in his congregation, John had learned, called him Pastor Ed, which John thought was ridiculous.)

"I'm not sure we have time," said Happy. "I've already ordered the flowers. And with both of us working nonstop in order to take time off for the honeymoon, we're flat out. As it is, we have to do everything on the weekends."

Ed acknowledged Happy's objection and turned to John. "Think of it as a process of discovery. As a lawyer, you must know how important that is." Ed put a hand on John's shoulder as he handed him a business card. He was at least a foot shorter than John, and the gesture struck Happy as rather comical, like someone congratulating a camel on good behavior by patting its leg bone. (Happy and John were both tall and slender, stick-like, actually. A friend at a party had once introduced them to the other guests as The Tweezers.) "This is a tricky time. Emotions are apt to run amok. Unexpected things are bound to surface. They could be crucial."

"Crucial to . . ."

"Success, John."

"So, if we go, you'll guarantee us success?" Happy asked lightheartedly, hoping to diffuse the tension that had arisen. But Ed did the eye thing again, offering her a clue as to how serious he was. "I can only do my part, que no, Happy?"

Later, hurtling down the parkway toward the party rental place, John asked Happy exactly what Ed's part was. "He's supposed to be helping us through this, not building roadblocks. Que no?"

Happy looked up from the calculator in her lap. She was rather proud of her ability to do detailed financial work in a moving vehicle. "You don't like him."

"No, no, I like him fine! I just don't know what he wants."

"He wants us to know what we're doing. To be conscious of what this is all about."

"We've been together five years! We're not adolescents off on some spree."

"Hey," she said and reached over to touch the hair at the edge of his collar. There was a nice little curl to the ends, which were long enough to twist around her finger. "Settle down, Paco. Everybody goes to pre-nuptial counseling these days."

"They do?"

Happy returned to her work on the calculator. The florist had called that morning to say that the only lady slippers she could locate at that time of year were probably going to bust their budget. Did Happy still want them? (The florist was young and her lingo was breezy; she said things like bust your budget and ended all her responses with a whatever, as if no amount of flowers could ever make up for the mistake of actually getting married.) Happy had given her a go-ahead on the special order without consulting John, and then regretted her solo decision - the wedding account came from both their savings. Now she was trying to make up the difference by subtracting the caterers' boutonnieres.

"I thought Ed was supposed to be a man of the cloth," John continued, not done griping yet. "If you think about it, he's a very secular guy." A girlfriend in college had made John read The Cloud of Unknowing, the work of an anonymous 14th-century mystic, and while he'd been a little put off by the whole obedience thing, he'd been impressed by the monk's tremendous humility in the face of his spiritual calling. Whereas, he reflected, Ed's preparation for the spiritual life had probably been business school and tennis. "Take away the high-octane personality and what is he? Just some guy with a gift for gab."

Happy looked up from her work. "Are you worried we might find out things about each other we don't want to know?"

"Are you kidding? After five seamless years?"

"I don't know about seamless, sweetheart. Are you forgetting we split up twice?"

John leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "OK, funny girl, so we had a rip in the seams, but it's been blissful, que no?"

"Oh, stop it! Ed lived in a Mexican barrio for years. He's allowed to use a few Spanish phrases. It doesn't make him a phony. Think of all the good he does for the underserved populations."

"Underserved?" He pictured a line of beggars demanding full plates. And the anonymous monk at the very end beaming rapturously over his scraps. "What's wrong with the word poor?"

"We're not marrying Ed, John, he's marrying us." She gestured toward the grimy little mall up ahead where the Party Palace was. "There it is."

"And what are we doing here?"

"Vases for the gladioli. If the caterer orders them, it costs twice as much." Happy returned to her figures. "Tell me this: Do you think $27,892.94 is too much to spend on a wedding?"

John swerved as he pulled into the parking lot, narrowly missing another car. "Holy shit! Is that what it's costing? Isn't that kind of a lot for a party?"


In the elevator on the way up to see Florence Gadsen, M.S.W., the following Friday evening, John was still trying to make amends. He hadn't meant party, he'd meant celebration - the word had just slipped his mind. Of course it wasn't just a party, he never thought that for a minute, getting married was a major event. If not, why else would they spend their only free evening in weeks getting shrinked?

"OK, John! I hear you. Fine. I'm feeling now, if we can just get through it we'll be lucky."



It had been a tough week. Complications were popping up right and left: invitations gone awry; the sudden, unexplained closing of the Italian villa where they'd been planning to spend their honeymoon, and the ensuing hassle over the return of their deposit - not looking good; the caterer's baffling tantrum over the pasta issue, penne vs. fussili; Happy's mother's sister's in-laws, who were offended because they couldn't bring their dog to the reception, a schipperke. (John had looked up the breed online; they might be small, he told Happy, but these little dogs were bred to bark.) More than once, Happy had commented under her breath that for just a party, it wasn't worth the aggravation.

They walked down the too-bright corridor, peering at the numbers on the doors, and John felt a slight loosening of the forces that normally kept the big pieces of their universe in place. Perhaps, he thought, that's what Ms. Gadsen's real job was, to help couples jam the pieces back together to make the picture come out right again at the very end. When he'd called to confirm the appointment, he'd been surprised by her youthful voice - with a name like Florence, he'd been expecting someone older.

She'd suggested three sequential sessions; when he told her they were awfully busy, she said she'd be willing to stay late on Fridays, if that helped any. John had wanted to tell her that they were also too busy on Fridays; actually, there was no good time. They were too busy even to be getting married. When he said the line to himself, trying it out, it engendered in him an alarming wave of relief.


Florence Gadsen was a big surprise to Happy. She was disorganized, soft. She had loose, blonde curls and a vaguely double chin, and wore a flowing, little-girl dress with a busy red-and-yellow print. Her person seemed to spill over onto the objects around her, blurring physical boundaries. It was the way she touched things with the soft pads of her plump fingers, Happy decided; she held her pen as if it were a lover, reached for her water bottle as if it were a cherished friend. There were the conventional diplomas on the walls, which they both examined covertly, and a large poster, curling at the edges, of an 18th-century sailing vessel. On her desk, partially buried in a sea of papers, were the usual framed photographs - of Ms. Gadsen's well-adjusted family, Happy assumed.

"So," Florence Gadsen said when they'd settled into their chairs. "What brings you here?"

John darted a worried look at Happy, who answered for them. "For pre-nuptial counseling." It sounded so juvenile! "Ed sent us."

"Ah, Ed." She smiled warmly. She might as well have said, Darling Ed. She leaned forward and waited, her shiny black Cuban heels (with white ankle socks, Happy noted) planted firmly on the carpet. Happy wondered briefly whether the look - the peculiar footwear, the loose, baby-doll dress - had come into fashion when she wasn't noticing. She herself always wore the same uniform: long, slim skirt, dress boots, tailored, dark-colored jacket. She suddenly felt very dull compared to the vibrant, carefree Ms. Gadsen. And tense. She tried to loosen her jaws.

"We're getting married in six weeks," John told her. "Ed suggested we check in to see if we had any last-minute problems."

Another warm smile. "And do you?"

"We're doing all right," he said. "Considering."

Ms. Gadsen raised an eyebrow. "Considering?"

"Considering what we're up against." John smiled uncertainly, glancing at Happy.

"The truth is, we don't really know why we're here. Ed wanted us to come and so here we are." Happy looked at her watch pointedly.

"Don't worry about the time, Happy," said Ms. Gadsen, "I'll take care of that. What I'd like to suggest to both of you is that you think of this as a place where you can ask frank questions of one another. I'm here to make sure it stays a safe place for that."

"Safe from . . ." John made a questioning movement with his hands.

"In other words, I'll provide the boundaries."

John laughed. "Why? You think we'll go ape?" Happy shot him a look - go ape?

"Not at all." Florence Gadsen leaned back, completely relaxed. "Tell me something about yourself, Happy. Tell me who you are, what you do, the things you like. I can see you're a professional."

"I'm a designer."

"Of . . . ?"


"She's won awards," John said.

"Lovely! What sort of awards?"

"For design," Happy said. She heard the unpleasantness in her voice, like a truculent teenager. She took a breath, letting oxygen flow into her cells.

"And you, John? What is your profession?"

"I'm a trial lawyer. I work for a defense firm here."

"Ah, you defend against injustice."

"We defend insurance companies - that's probably not the kind of underdog you're thinking of. I work mostly with our title company clients." John settled himself more comfortably in his chair, which Happy noticed he'd turned away from her ever so slightly, and sailed forth into one of his favorite subjects: the need for meticulous research into deeds, liens, conflicting interests, then the even more demanding business of synthesizing it all in a dynamic way so that a judge or jury could understand the sequence of claims. John was relaxed, loose. Somehow, Happy thought, he had reverted into a former self, the debonair, easygoing student whom she'd never known, the immature chrysalis from which the adult lawyer had emerged.

Florence Gadsen asked a few questions, sending John into a deeper spasm of explanations. Happy was sure that she had lost control. Within minutes, though, she'd swung the conversation around deftly, like an athlete with a discus, and popped it back into place, so that when she asked if either of them had been married before, it seemed as though that was where they'd been headed all along.

"Happy has been married before," said John.

"Can you tell me about that?" Florence asked her.

"It was nothing. I don't even consider it a marriage. It was a youthful mistake."

"How old were you?"

"Chronologically, I was 24. Psychologically, he was 12." Happy hadn't meant to sound bitter. The more negative she was about it, the more important it would seem, and the more questions the woman would ask. "John knows all about it."

"Well, not that much," he said.

"John! I told you everything! At any rate, it was over in a flash." They were both waiting for her to continue. "OK, it's a short story, like the marriage itself. Frank was a classical guitarist who could toss off flawless arpeggios with lightning speed, but he was crippled by a terrible self-loathing. A few days before the wedding, he bought himself a priceless Gerhard Oldiges - not just the name of the guitar, mind you, but the guitar maker - very expensive. Anyway, the night before the wedding, Frank smashed his priceless guitar, beat it savagely with a croquet mallet until it was reduced to a pile of smithereens. His explanation was that it was too good, he loved it too much. I scrambled."

"That's appalling," said Florence. "You must have been terrified."

"Thank you. It was appalling. And yes, I was terrified."

"And you had no idea it was coming?"

This was the part of the story Happy didn't like. "I saw a few signs. But you know how it is, preparing for a wedding. I mean, it's so much work. It's almost more work to undo it than to do it." Happy flushed, remembering that she'd told John almost the same thing just the day before, after the caterer blew up on the phone.

But John was looking at her sympathetically. "The good news," he told Florence, "is that Happy wasn't married by the time I came along," and she felt a rush of gratitude. He was, down deep, a gentleman.

"And you, John?" asked Florence. "Were you ever married before?"

"John had a cat," Happy said quickly, and the three of them shared an unexpected laugh. "His name was Chump. Isn't that awful?"

"Happy wanted me to change his name."

"It seemed rather derogatory," Happy said quickly. "I mean, you were fond of him. The name didn't reflect that, that's all. I told John that if he would just change the "u" to "a," the cat would be a hero forever. You can't change a cat's name after it's dead."

Florence smiled slightly. "You're right - or anyone's name, really, when you think about it. What happened to him?"

"He got run over." Happy had been the first one home from work that night. A neighbor had found the cat lying lifeless on the street, and in an ill-advised attempt to soften the blow to his owners, had left him at their doorstep inside a discarded Harry and David box. It had been a terrible shock to her when she lifted the lid.

"He was a great cat," said John, "a real fighter. A good forager, too. Independent as all get-out. I'd go out of town and when I came back, there he was, waiting for me at the back door. He didn't ask where I'd been, I didn't ask where he'd been. I knew he could take care of himself. Happy had a different philosophy; she wanted to coddle him. I never took him to the vet, yet he was perfectly healthy. He had a fabulous immune system."

Florence was watching the two of them, her cheek resting on her hand, as if she had all the time in the world to listen. "I'm going to go out on a limb here," she said, smoothing out a path for their discussion, asserting herself as an expert judge of how far to go, which limbs would hold. "I'm going to say I think the cat may still be an issue for you two. This is an animal you had originally, John? Before you met Happy?"

"When I was in law school, my roommate found him on the street, half-starved. He couldn't keep him - he was the one who named him, by the way - so I took him along with me when I got my first job. As I moved up the economic ladder, so did Chump, but unlike me, he kept on raising the same old kind of joyful havoc in our new, more affluent neighborhoods." John smiled engagingly. "Whereas I got conservative and bought an alarm system," he added, and Happy laughed. He was a funny guy, when he let himself go.

"Is that true, Happy? Did John get conservative on you?"

"When I first met John, he and Chump used to have breakfast together. And by that I mean, he let the cat lie on the table while he ate his cereal. When John was done, he let the cat lap up the milk at the bottom of the bowl. It was a wild life they had. And then I came along. I didn't like the hairs on the table while I was having my coffee."

John smiled at her as he addressed Florence. "She's teasing me, I think."

"Oh, wait until you have children!" Florence said. "My husband and I disagree completely on how to bring up our son - we have completely different styles. I'd say that what Rory wants most is for us to go away for the weekend and let him roam around on his own. He'd probably like to lie on the breakfast table, too," Florence added, laughing, "just to flaunt his bad manners. But I'm afraid we're out of time now. Shall we start off next week where we left off, talking about . . . is it Chump? Do I have that right?"

Happy gave John a look. "See? Even Ms. Gadsen can't bring herself to say the name."


The elevator was waiting for them at the end of the hall. "I'm sorry about the guitar," John said.

"I never told you?"

"No. I knew about the self-loathing but I didn't know about the smashing. It was a croquet mallet?"

"From the boathouse at his parents' summer place. That's where we had the wedding."

"No wonder you didn't want to call it off. You were in enemy territory. I probably would have gone ahead and married him, too, under those circumstances." John gave her a goofy look.

"You're sweet. But I'm not going back there to talk about the cat."

"Me neither," he said. "I don't know why she wanted to make such a big thing of it."

"What I'm thinking is that we just don't have that kind of time, to let people mess around in our past like that. There's a lot of people trying to get in our act, John. And really, what do they have to do with it?"

"Agreed. Absolutely. So what do we do now?"

Happy was studying the weight-limit warning on the elevator wall. Neither of them had pushed DOWN and the doors were still open. "Want to elope?"

John laughed, unsure at first whether she was serious. "Can grownups elope?"

"Why not? Just think - no party. No arguments. We could fire the caterer."

"And Ed."

"You want to fire Ed?" she asked.

"We don't need him if we're going to elope."

"True," she said.

"Shall we do it now?"

"What better time?" Happy asked and pushed the button.

Mary Hays is the author of Learning to Drive. She lives in Corinth with her husband, Stephen Long.