Mean, Part Three

Wife three: I’m no trophy. I hear phrases like practice makes perfect. Or three is a charm. They’re lying, of course. What they mean is that, if he married again, he’d cross a line. Or they’re sorry for me. Wife one could be naïve. Wife two could be hopeful that wife one was a fluke. A mistake. But wife three who weds at thirty? Such a match is hardly about new starts. He’d had forty-five years on him. Two ex-wives. Two sons. That’s a past to carry carefully.

In Las Vegas, when I asked my grandfather for old photographs, he said he had none. Then, walking to a bookshelf, he found a single album. This is it. Filled with portraits and graduation poses and infants in long, baptismal dresses. Toward the back, a whole page of graves: Nick, Jan 23 1968, Ralph, October 20 1976, Francesco, June 1928, Leonard 1 Jun 19 ­?. We can’t make out the date. Look at this, he says, turning cellophane-pages. In an instant camera snapshot, my grandfather and a dog (long dead, I’m sure) drive a restored Ford Model T through a Vegas parade. The banner on the classic car reads Las Vegas Chicagoans Club. They pass The Fremont Hotel where — so the sign says — they once served $1.98 steak and, 7 days from 9pm to 7am, you could get 50 cent well drinks.

In San Diego, the museum of natural history is not unlike my grandfather’s pictured past. In the glass box, a dead coral snake. I learn a rhyme to help me not get killed: Red touch black, good for jack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. In another box, a California Condor, its wings expanded, seems a mystery. But the featherless head -­ not majestic­ – served him well. The bird never dirtied himself when reaching into a carcass to feed.

My husband can’t hide his dislike. He admires this in me: it’s hard to tell what I think of a person. When they say to my face that three’s a lucky number, I smile. They mean I’m more like albatross than shamrock. But I’ve got no snake stripes or a head for eating the dead. You couldn’t tell if I’ve minded missing the first wife’s limelight or the second’s pleasure in not being the first.

Not long after our wedding, I sorted my husband’s old, loose photos from envelopes: film developed in Texas, New Jersey, Virginia. I pasted them into an album. Him with his dog and playing in Spain. Wife one, age eleven, at a piano. Him, fourteen and midair on a motorcycle against a New Mexico desert-backdrop. Wife one, pregnant. Child one. Child two. Wife two. Wedding photos. Not mine. A kind woman might have stashed them in an attic. But it doesn’t seem right. Wife three has to count back to black and white; every heavy story is full of babies, graves, and the promise of cheap well drinks.

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