Our original story this month comes from Brooklyn-based writer Alison B. Hart. “The Duel” looks closely at a long life together and relates the wisdom of mates one finds in Wallace Stegner or Kent Haruf. When a reader learns that this older couple still “made love like rivals,” the broader meaning of the title comes into focus: a lasting marriage is more often duel than duet. Through tender rivalry, a relationship can strengthen and sustain. Hart’s story is clean and quiet in execution but suggests that healthy relationships need mess and noise.
The chair arrived on Graham’s birthday, before the kids were expected. Caroline was still in her sweatpants, down on her knees with the vacuum attachment, cleaning the baseboards. She heard Chad’s truck first, a thundering heavy-duty pickup that he’d supposedly bought to tow the boat to Grand Lake in the summers, though Caroline could only see ego in it. Then came the slam of the cab doors, after he and another man stepped out. The chair—a saggy, brown corduroy monstrosity—sat enthroned in the bed of the truck, like a sedan chair absent royalty, the chair itself being the king, all-terrain tires and a V8 engine replacing the porters.
Graham, of course, was out. A round of golf was his birthday present to himself, though he might have been at the course any other day of the week, now that he was retired. He’d said nothing to Caroline that morning about a chair being delivered, nor had he shared any thoughts about where such a chair might go once it appeared. And Chad was so breathless, sweating through the armpits of his button-down shirt, that she hated to embarrass him in front of his friend by asking them to move it from the living room, where they’d deposited it with a collective heave and grunt, to other places in the house to which it might be more suited. If indeed such a place could even be found, ugly as the chair was.
So Caroline simply offered the men iced tea and then, saying goodbye, resumed her housecleaning. When that was done, she found a measuring tape and noted the dimensions of the chair, both at rest and when extended to its fully reclined position. But it hardly mattered; the only sensible place for it to go was the City of Tulsa Dump.
She let the matter turn over in her mind as she layered the lasagna and baked and iced the cake. Would it fit in the study? Not when it required a foot and a half of clearance from the wall. The basement? Only if they got rid of the rowing machine. No solution yet found, she took a shower, and it was in this mental state—piqued but productive—that Graham found her when he got home.
“Hello, hello, pussycat,” he called from the other side of the shower door. He called her pussycat only when he wanted things—affection, a concession, forgiveness. That he hadn’t joined her in the shower meant he’d known about the chair and knew he was in trouble.
She stepped out of the shower. Graham whistled. Caroline lingered in his attention, pretending to inspect a freckle on her thigh. Then she wrapped a towel around herself and gave him a chaste kiss. He pulled her in and grabbed her bottom. She wiggled free.
“Stinky. In there with you.”
Graham obeyed and undressed. She left him to his shower and went to the bedroom to get dressed.
Afterward, bound for her hostess duties in the kitchen, she paused to have another look at the chair in the living room. It looked confused, like a jet that’s just landed, awaiting its gate assignment. The proportions were all wrong, and the lines of the thing— fluffy and sloppy in a room designed for the opposite.
Caroline herself was designed for the opposite. Everywhere she was a bit bony, though with some padding now. She still had, more or less and to her surprise, her figure. Heavy eyebrows hooded almond-shaped eyes. The apple-y cheeks of her childhood were less rosy but still hung on strong bones. Her dark brown hair had gone gray on top and she had let it, the roots there for all to see in the middle part of her chin-length bob. She knew she looked severe compared to other women she saw at the grocery store or at her grandchildren’s school events, like an old history tutor, her style of dress and comportment not having changed considerably since she fixed on it at Bristol University in 1965. Graham’s obvious foreignness—his pale, almost translucent skin; the English overbite; that accent—came off better here than hers. He was gregarious and charming and had half the women on the block a little bit in love with him. Caroline was aware that she did not appeal to most of the men in this town, these good ol’ boys with their red hats and lawn signs; there was just her husband, who liked her then and liked her now, if not always in between.
The chair, on the other hand, was a real American, which Caroline would never be, despite having been one for almost forty years. Its true home would have been what they were now calling a “mancave.” It seemed built for an oaf, for an adult-sized infant who might need help to stand.
Graham knew not to make any major acquisitions without Caroline’s input, having lost the style war to her many years ago. Once he might have coveted a chair like this but she doubted he still did. His tastes had shifted toward hers. So she understood that the chair was not a chair. It was a displacement of feeling. He wanted a job, but a chair was offered instead, and he would act grateful. He would hope for more.
At six o’clock the kids came, pouring from the garage into the kitchen. Daniel first, carrying a salad under one arm and a present under the other; Shelby shuffling behind her younger brother, her face hidden under all that hair, nose practically pressed to her phone; then Rachel, hurrying her daughter along with a permanent eye roll; and Chad, bearing a case of beer and a bottle of scotch like they were frankincense and myrrh.
Daniel put the things on the counter and gave Caroline a hug. She treasured her grandson’s affection, knowing that this still helpful 12-year-old would soon be a sulky teenager like his sister. He was an inch taller than Caroline already, and she directed her nose upward to his freshly shampooed hair and away from the hormonal and pubescent rest of him.
“Shelby,” Rachel barked. “Hello to your grandmother.”
“Hi Grandma,” Shelby said. She coasted, as if on an assembly line, into the living room, around the back of the chair, and then into its wrinkly embrace. “What’s this doing here?”
“Good question,” Caroline said. “Let’s ask your mother.”
“Did Dad see it yet?” Rachel asked. “We should put a bow on it. You know, like in a car commercial.”
“That’s given me an idea. Let’s park the chair in the garage.”
“Don’t be a spoilsport.”
“Who’s a spoilsport?” Graham called out from the bedroom hallway.
Rachel met him in the living room with a hug.
“Happy birthday, Dad. How do you feel?”
“Not a day over 71.”
“Shelby, hop up. Let Granddad try his new chair.”
“It’s our old chair. He’s sat in it before.”
“Shelby.” Rachel’s voice was sharp. Shelby moved to the sofa. The chair was two years old—not ancient by any means, not spoiled with grape soda stains or too lived in to conform to someone else’s curves, but certainly not new.
“She’s all right,” Graham said, sinking into the chair. “Mmmmm. Like sitting in a tub of melted butter.”
“I believe I could sleep here.”
Caroline coughed again, bending her head low to take the lasagna out of the oven.
“Yep, I did,” Chad said. “Beer or scotch?”
“Scotch, I think.”
“Gosh, it looks great in here,” Rachel said. “It works perfectly with everything else you guys have.”
“Oh now, really, Rachel,” Caroline said, standing tall. She could take no more. “You hate that chair, and you’ve finally convinced Chad to part with it. Quit banging on about it.”
They sat in the dining room and ate off the Harvest Wheat pattern, one of the few table settings of Oklahoma Clay pottery that Caroline liked. It had the signature rustic look, but an inner and outer ring of wheat fronds had been added to the plates, showing off the irregular glaze to more sophisticated effect.
Graham had doomed Caroline to a litany of rustic dinner parties when he bought Oklahoma Clay fifteen years ago. They’d come to Tulsa when Graham accepted a job in the transparencies division of an American aeronautics company. Over the next two-and-a-half decades he’d become a kind of plastics guru, an expert in the practice of stretching and polishing acrylic into airplane windows and helicopter canopies. But eventually he’d realized there was a limit to how far up the ladder he could go in someone else’s family-owned business. The only way to be really successful was to be an owner himself. He was just looking for the right opportunity when Caroline dragged him to the Oklahoma Clay factory store one Saturday. She’d heard the store had nice handicrafts and was disappointed. She found it all too kitschy, but Graham found a tumbledown plant lacking certain efficiencies that he could provide.
“What do you know about pottery?” Caroline had asked. “Airplanes—alright, I see it. But home décor?”
“Chemistry is chemistry,” he’d said with a swagger.
“Scott rang earlier,” he said now from his seat at the head of the table. His hair had gone from salt and pepper to white in the last year, whether from the sun or a paradoxical aging effect of retirement.
“Did he call?” Caroline asked. “I didn’t hear it.”
“When I was at the club. We had a video chat with the baby.”
“We’ll have to plan a visit soon,” Caroline said. “We could tack on a road trip afterward. Go north to see the autumn leaves?”
“Mmmm,” he muttered noncommittally.
“We’re going to travel more, mister. Get used to it.”
“There’s so much going on here, though, isn’t there? Rachel’s got a few busy months coming up at work, and Dan’s football season starts soon.”
“And they can’t possibly get on without us for a couple of weeks, can they?”
“It would be great if you could help with the kids during the arts district relaunch, Mom,” Rachel said.
Rachel was in charge of downtown development at the Chamber of Commerce. She loved her job, which pleased Caroline, but it was born of a passionate enthusiasm for Tulsa that mystified her, too. Of all the cities Caroline and Graham could have emigrated to, places with charm and life and some worldliness to them—Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans—to have ended up here, with the Baptists and the Republicans. And yet Rachel had come back after college, and a small detour through the entertainment industry. She’d chosen Oklahoma over California, and willingly!
Caroline had been at an inflection point then, with her children grown and Graham putting in extra hours at the store; meanwhile, the learning center Caroline had managed, always struggling, had just closed down for good. Graham could have drummed up a position for her at Oklahoma Clay, but they couldn’t butt heads at work and at home. It would bring them back to the brink of divorce, and they’d finally managed to be lovers again and not dreary old parents all the time. She’d been toying with the idea of going back to school and studying Victorian literature. But what would she do with a graduate degree? At her age? Then Rachel returned from LA, hugely pregnant with Shelby. A few months into motherhood, she found she couldn’t bear to be home all day with the baby, so Caroline watched Shelby and then Daniel, too, while Rachel went out to work, part-time at first, then full-time, and eventually followed by evening classes as she earned her master’s in city planning.
Caroline’s family took the attitude that she led a rich and busy life caring for her grandchildren. “They have so much fun with you,” Rachel would say when she came home at night, seeming both irked and relieved about the arrangement. “You weren’t that happy around us.” Graham joked to their friends that it was as if he’d had a mid-life crisis and started over with a younger woman. Lately Scott and his wife seemed to think it impossible that Caroline could take an active interest in their little girl in Brooklyn, where they lived now, so deeply implicated was she in the upbringing of the grandchildren here. They all overlooked the fact that Shelby and Daniel were almost grown or that Caroline might want to spend her remaining good years, before anyone got sick—touch wood—pursuing her own interests.
“Well of course I won’t leave you high and dry,” Caroline said now, “but aren’t the kids getting old enough to look after themselves a bit?”
“Seriously,” Shelby chimed in.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Rachel said to the girl.
“How are the expansion plans coming along, Chad?” Graham asked with a deafening nonchalance.
This was the reason he didn’t want to see the autumn leaves, or the Great Wall of China, or go truffle hunting in Tuscany, or on any of a dozen other trips that Caroline had suggested in the last few months.
“Real good,” Chad said. He’d met Rachel at Stanford, but since moving to Tulsa his speech had become increasingly colloquial. Adverbs were for the blue states, apparently.
“Good. Mmm hmmm. Good.” Graham pushed a portion of lasagna up the ramp of his fork and then paused. “Only, I wonder if the old kiln will be a problem?”
“I don’t see how.”
“It’s probably nothing, then.”
“What, Dad?” Rachel asked. Caroline sat in awe of her daughter, who was nearly 40 years old and still incapable of leaving her father to set up his own arguments. But, then again, she had always worshipped him.
Graham put down his knife and fork, leaned his forearms on the table, and clasped his hands together. Their son-in-law had a fine mind. He’d brought Oklahoma Clay into the Internet age, revolutionized the marketing plan, made it a viable business for the long-term. But there were gaps in his knowledge that Graham was about to exploit.
“Well, you want to start firing in it again, don’t you? Do demonstrations, build a museum around it, that sort of thing? Only, we looked at bringing it back on line several years ago and it’s not so simple given that it’s a historic site. If you want any sort of consistent finished product, one that lives up to our standards—and I don’t see the point of doing it otherwise—you’ll have to retrofit the kiln. And you only have a few options for how you do that to begin with—fewer still if you don’t want to run afoul of the pencil-pushers at the State Historic Preservation Office. You’ll need to get it just right to qualify for the tax credits to help pay for the expansion. Or else you’ll be leaving free money on the table.”
“Maybe Dad can help you with this,” Rachel said, a concerned hand landing on Chad’s arm.
“We’re in good shape,” Chad said.
“Yeah but Dad knows the engineering so well, not to mention the local politics. Those bureaucrats at the Historical Society are a bunch of dinosaurs, but they love Dad.”
“He’s retired, Rach. He doesn’t want to think about bureaucrats and retrofitting and process trials anymore. He wants to break 80 at Southern Hills. Am I right, Graham?”
“I do enjoy being retired,” Graham said. The baldness of the lie would have made Caroline squeamish if she didn’t also understand the need for it. A man didn’t want his grown children to think him unhappy, even if he was. Graham regretted retiring “so young,” and blamed Caroline for pushing him into it, as if their friends weren’t all getting picked off, one by one, by illness and money woes. Cancer, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s disease, bad hips, disappearing pension plans and no life insurance. They were so lucky not to be dealing with any of that.
“Well, obviously, you shouldn’t take all of his time,” Rachel told her husband. “But you’d be crazy not to let him help.”
Chad’s knife clanked against the Harvest Wheat, and Rachel flinched.
“Graham,” Chad said, “I value your expertise. Obviously, I do. But I don’t want to insult you by treating you like a consultant.”
“Oh, I don’t mind about titles.”
Caroline took a quick bite of salad to hide her astonishment.
“Consultant!” Graham had barked at her one evening six months ago, after he’d first begun hinting about a return to Oklahoma Clay. “That’s like calling the President a competent manager”—“not bloody lately,” she’d replied—“or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a good shot!”
But now Graham returned to his meal, taking up his fork and smiling with just the slightest hint of noblesse oblige.
Rachel stared at her husband.
“We could set up a meeting with the architect and the engineering team,” Chad said to his plate.
“Sure. If you think that would help.” Graham ate his dinner and sighed. “Lovely having all of you here.”
Caroline had learned in this latest chapter of their marriage—the happy years—the importance of not keeping score. But the fact remained that she was losing. Graham had his work back, and she had no Great Wall of China, no autumn leaves, just an ugly lounge chair in her living room.
“Happy birthday, darling,” Caroline said, raising her glass of wine.
“Thank you, love,” Graham said, raising his scotch.
“It’ll be mine soon. Do you know what you’re going to get me?”
“I thought I’d keep it a surprise.”
“What did you get Granddad, Grandma?” Daniel asked.
“Two children and three beautiful grandchildren, of course.” Daniel looked pained, so she added, “And a silly golf club he wanted, as well. I’d say that entitles me to something very nice on my birthday. What do you say, kids? Should Granddad take me on safari?”
“Uh, yeah,” Shelby said, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Will there be time to get the necessary immunizations, though?” Graham asked.
“Bermuda, then,” Caroline said. “They have such pleasant shorts.”
“Hurricane season,” Graham said. “Better not.”
“Washington, D.C.!” Daniel said, still riding high on this spring’s class trip.
“Who needs to visit the nation’s capital when I’ve got the Lincoln Memorial in my living room?” Caroline said.
“Touché,” Graham said. He lifted the open bottle of Rioja and stood to fill the grown-ups’ glasses.
“It’s a gift, Mom,” Rachel said. “The chair is a gift, not an imposition.”
“A gift?” Caroline asked. “For whom?”
“For me,” Graham said.
“If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge for you.” Caroline saw the glint in Graham’s eye. An instant ago, he’d been protecting Rachel and laying cover for his own advances toward Chad. Playing the placating patriarch, snore. But now a hint of a smile rose up in his cheeks as he sat down again.
“What’s the matter, pussycat?” Graham began. “Have we spoiled your mid-century vignette with that Barcalounger?”
“Do you ever marvel, darling, at how far you’ve strayed from your younger self? Who could have imagined at the Senate House sit-in that today your capitalist bum would require quite so much pampering?” She took a healthy slug of her drink. It would be fifty years this December since the protest, back when they were at university together. Graham had only gone because Caroline wanted to. Even now, she was the one who wrote postcards to voters and had their congressman’s number programmed into her phone. Graham would vote as his wife did, but he wasn’t a part of the resistance. He was too much of a businessman for that, too careful about keeping his views to himself.
“Indeed. I’m appalled by the way my comfort interferes with your brutalist aesthetics,” Graham said.
“Is that your tame way of calling me a socialist?” Caroline asked.
“If the shoddily-made shoe fits. Is it exhausting being the only principled person left from 1968?” Graham smiled at Caroline, a smile that went right to her groin. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of smiling back.
“You always do this,” Rachel broke in.
“Do what?” Caroline asked. She had momentarily forgotten the others. The interruption left her panting.
“Turn what should be a happy family occasion into a shouting match.”
“Who’s shouting?” Caroline asked.
“Everybody! This is not how other families talk to each other!”
“Because I called your father a capitalist? But it’s true! Look at him!”
“You know what happens when we eat with Chad’s parents? We talk about movies and sports. We taste our food.”
“I like it better here,” Chad said. “It’s exciting. You never know what’s gonna happen.”
“My goodness,” Caroline said. “You make it sound like we’re a troupe of street performers.”
“You’re worse,” Rachel said. “You’re like animals at each other throats. It’s disgusting.”
“Hey!” Graham boomed. “You watch it. That’s your mother.”
Rachel shook her head and laughed. Then she pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. “Well, this has been festive, as usual,” she said. She tossed her napkin onto her chair and stormed out.
The adults stared at their rustic plates and waited to see who would move first. The children finished their dinner. Caroline looked at Chad. He looked frozen. Hunched over his plate like a stunned primate, he looked so much like Graham, Graham before, Graham in the unhappy years. Chad winced briefly, and then his face resumed its stoic mien. He and Rachel were having trouble, Caroline now understood. She and Graham exchanged a look.
Graham pushed back his chair.
“No. I’ll go,” she said.
Caroline folded her napkin and placed it on the table. She stood, straightened the crease in her pants, and left the dining room.
Caroline and Graham were not the perfect match. They’d fallen in love at uni, a bubble in which it was possible to imagine that marriage—especially one between intellectual equals, with enough sexual chemistry between them—would be a source of endless discovery, like the collected works of George Eliot. They differed on so many issues—politics, music, their friends, whether and how much to show affection in public. Their disagreements were always passionate, but the casualties only started to accrue after they became parents.
When Scott was two, they went without speaking for the entire month of February—the shortest month, but the longest in their marriage. Scott had fallen out of the stroller and into the snow. Caroline hadn’t strapped him in properly, and when the stroller got caught on a crack in the parking lot, he’d toppled over, face first. He was covered in blankets and crying, and she was trying to reach her little boy through the yards of quilting and outerwear but failing, and Graham was shouting at her, as if it was his supervisory responsibility. She’d shouted back, hurling the nearest disappointments to hand. Why aren’t you helping me? Why must I do everything myself? Is this the father you want to be?
Later, when she would recall that day, which had distilled in memory into a haiku of regret—the cold snow, the distressed little boy, and the bickering parents; the innocent prelude, the fall, and the messy aftermath—Caroline would have to remind herself to put Rachel in the picture. Because of course her seven-year-old daughter had been there, too, watching with mute horror as her parents verbally tore each other apart.
It didn’t help that Graham and Caroline were so isolated. They were all they had on this side of the Atlantic and were each the only person to whom the other could say the worst things. There was that stretch of time, when Rachel was in high school—maybe six months, two years at the most—when Caroline really didn’t know if the marriage would survive.
But it did. They turned a corner. A kind of equilibrium was reached. They still disagreed, regularly, but they didn’t fight to the death anymore. And yet they could say anything to each other, because all of their failings were already out on the table, even if it bowed under their weight.
Outside the sunlight bent through the tops of the pecan trees at the edge of the yard, leaving the living room prematurely dim. Caroline’s eyesight adjusted. Rachel had reclined in the chair, sandals kicked to the floor. Caroline squeezed her daughter’s arm in passing. She sat down on the coffee table across from her so that they could be face to face. Later the sun would set and they could go outdoors, but at this hour it was still too hot and too buggy to go out to the deck.
Rachel smiled weakly, and Caroline realized, with gratitude, that she was the one her daughter had hoped would come after her.
“I do hate this chair,” Rachel said. “I wanted it out of my house.”
“It isn’t good to keep it all bottled up.”
“Really,” Caroline said. “You might feel better if you blew your top at someone other than me now and again.”
Rachel raised an eyebrow, as if Caroline were trying to weasel out of accepting responsibility for her mistakes as a mother. She was not. She tugged Rachel’s big toe and smiled as proof.
But she wished that her children could see the value in conflict. These days, instead of chipping away at their respect for each other, fighting with Graham—if you could even call it that, and Caroline wouldn’t have; it was more like a form of movement, a buzzing friction—gave her something back. A charge. It made Caroline feel alive, and like herself, distinct from Graham. Their separateness made them attractive to each other again.
She worried about Rachel, a people pleaser par excellence. She always played peacemaker among her friends, but did any of them really know her? She’d had bland boyfriend after bland boyfriend in high school. Later Caroline had been terrified to meet Chad, certain she would have to summon false enthusiasm for someone so milquetoast. Thank God he was funny, and he turned out to have a bit of a backbone, too, though Graham encountered it at Oklahoma Clay far more often than did Rachel at home. Caroline had never once seen Rachel and Chad argue. They were both so painfully obliging with each other.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to Chad?” Caroline asked now.
“I try not to say the worst thing.”
“Never? What about a mean name?”
Rachel considered this. “The other day I told him he was a selfish child. Which, to be fair, was 100% true.”
“What man isn’t a selfish child at some point?”
“Right. I know. I shouldn’t have said it.”
“Of course you should have,” Caroline said. “It’s a bit mild, but it’s a start.”
“For you, maybe. But I don’t like to escalate things.”
“He loves you, Rachel. You have more wiggle room than you realize.”
“I don’t want to turn into you and Dad.”
Caroline realized she’d been holding her breath partially since she sat down. Now she let it out. Rachel had married someone who—discounting regional and cultural differences—so closely resembled her father that when she said she didn’t want to turn into her parents, she could only mean that she did not want to turn into her mother.
“I’m sorry,” Rachel said, “but I don’t.” She was as unafraid of her mother’s disapproval as she had been cowed by her father’s.
“You won’t, my darling.”
Caroline and Graham hadn’t wanted nurturing or sympathy from each other, but someone to keep them on their toes. Rachel wanted the opposite.
Tonight, mother and daughter enjoyed the prerogative of sitting out the chore of doing the dishes. They rejoined the others for singing and cake, and then slipped away again with their glasses of wine to sip in the shade of the pecan trees.
Later, after the bright sun concluded its arc, Caroline and Graham kissed everyone good night. They waved from the driveway as Chad’s pickup reversed into the road and pulled away. Graham lowered his waving hand onto Caroline’s rump and took possession of that quarter of her flesh. She turned and led him, as if he were on a leash, up the flagstone path, through the foyer, and down the long hallway to their bedroom, shutting off the lights as they went. She undressed for him, swaying her hips as her clothes slid off. Graham came up behind Caroline and kissed her neck. He caressed her breasts and she arched back into him. They made love like rivals, as they always had, though expertly and tenderly after so many years.
Graham fell to snoring, but Caroline couldn’t sleep right away, worried, as she still was, about Rachel. She went to the living room to read. Caroline sat down.
Dear God, but it was soft. Its velvety comfort welcomed her bare skin, and as she pulled the lever and stretched back, the full range of pleasure caressed her.