Chairman Of The Bored
Mike Slater could feel the waves of anger radiating from his wife as they both sat in their five-year-old Camry and continued to go nowhere. It was like having an extra passenger’s-side heating vent.
“Did I or did I not say we should avoid 684?” Jane Slater hissed at him.
He stared placidly at the car in front of them. “There must be an accident up ahead,” he said. “It’ll clear up soon.” He’d noticed lately how his calmness in the face of her anger seemed to piss her off even more.
His fingers tapped lightly against the steering wheel to the rhythm of the CD player, where the Eagles, appropriately enough, were singing “Take It Easy.” “Why do you care if we’re late?” he asked her. “You didn’t even want to go.”
She gave one of her combination laugh/snorts. “Because even an interminable high school reunion with a bunch of complete strangers blabbering on about trivial, adolescent bullshit that happened forty years ago will be more interesting than sitting in a car with you.”
He showed her no reaction. “Other people are bringing their spouses,” he pointed out.
She reached over and turned off the CD player just as it was getting to “Desperado,” his favorite. “And, believe me,” she said, “they’ll be as bored as I will.”
He had an urge to reach out and turn on the music again at ear-splitting volume but resisted it. “So why are you going?”
She made a noise that sounded something like Pfshhh! and rolled her eyes. “Because you already sent in the hundred dollars for me, you schmuck. Without asking.”
He already knew that. Amazingly, this woman would subject herself to what she considered to be crushing boredom rather than waste the money. That’s how cheap she was.
“I just assumed you’d want to go.”
Actually, he hadn’t assumed anything of the sort. He knew she didn’t give a flying crap about his old high school friends and memories. He’d sent in that check out of spite, because it galled him that she had no interest in anything he cared about if it didn’t revolve around her. The enormity of her self-involvement was something he’d grown to know and loathe.
Well, he hoped she’d squirm all day. Let her be bored to excruciating death by his teenaged past. Her suffering wouldn’t be half of what his was right now, in his middle-aged present.
The car in front of them moved another ten feet and he did likewise, as Jane switched the stereo back on and selected a different CD—”Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits.”
And I…eee…I…eee…I…will always love you…woo…woo…woo oo…
He said nothing, as was his wont, but she noticed a tightening in his jaw and felt a small twinge of satisfaction. What she’d originally loved in him most of all—his strong, even-tempered affability—she now knew was a pose, an endlessly annoying mask for his smug, passive hostility.
Of course, she didn’t know any of this 30 years ago, when she’d gotten swept off her feet by him. Oh, and pregnant too, don’t forget that. She’d given up all her career ambitions, and gladly. She’d stayed home and had Daisy, who was now living in Seattle with her husband and whose phone calls were all too rare.
Their second happy accident, Thomas, had been a problem from the beginning and couldn’t wait to be old enough to escape. He’d dropped out of college last year and was now somewhere in Europe, “finding himself.”
And it looked like she’d be a receptionist in a dental clinic until the day she died. Especially since the electronics sales firm Mike worked for, in its infinite wisdom, put all its employees’ 401(k) plans into mortgage-backed securities just before the real estate bust made them worthless. Not that retirement—and spending even more time with this man—was something to be desired.
She shot a glance at him. “Let me ask you something: will I have to sit through an entire afternoon of your football stories? Is the whole team going to be there, at least the ones that didn’t drop dead yet from obesity?”
He couldn’t tell if that was a subtle dig at him. When he’d quarterbacked the James K. Polk High School team, his playing weight was around 180. Now, on a good day, it was 265.
Well, if it was sarcasm, it was piddley compared to her usual withering onslaught. “I don’t know how many guys from the team will be there,” he said, “aside from Joey Francone.”
Joey had played fullback. Mike hadn’t heard his voice in 40 years, when he’d called from the reunion committee. Among other things, Joey had mentioned that Ted Kohovich was coming.
The thought of it now made him smile.
“What’s that shit-eating grin about?” his wife asked.
“Oh, I was just thinking.” The cars in front moved forward slightly and he followed suit. “Since it’s your mission to be bored today, I’ll introduce you to Ted Kohovich. He wrote the book on it.”
“Wow!” she said in mock wonder. “I get to meet the most boring guy in the world.”
“Not the most boring, the most bored. There’s a big difference. Ted Kohovich took being bored and made it into an art form. We used to call him ‘DisinteresTed.’”
“Another one of your football buddies?” Her voice held its usual soupçon of snippiness.
“No, he wasn’t.” Mike was used to slogging on against her resistance; he barely noticed it by now. “Ted was a skinny kid who sat next to me in social studies during senior year. Totally unathletic. Besides, if he played football, it would’ve meant he was interested in something.”
“Maybe he was. Just not what you and your jock friends were into.”
Another thing he was used to was her quick assumptions about people she’d never met. “You’d think so,” he said, “but believe me, he was into nothing, and he was very good at it.”
Jane was now a little curious, despite herself. The guy sounded so opposite from Mike. Maybe she’d actually have someone to talk to at this torturous affair. “So why were you friends with him?”
“I wasn’t friends with him, not at first. Like I say, he sat next to me in class. I’d watch him taking notes, from the beginning until the bell rang, in this tiny, tiny handwriting. Finally, I leaned over to look, and I saw he was writing numbers, minuscule numbers. Afterward, I asked him what he was doing, and he said there were forty-five minutes in each class before the bell, so that meant there were two thousand seven hundred seconds, and he was counting them down.”
She made a face. “Jesus, how creepy!”
“He told me he did that in every class.”
“Sounds like Rain Man or something. What did he do when the teacher called on him?”
“I don’t know about his other classes, but the teacher in this one just called on whoever raised their hands. Usually, it was the same four or five people, and the rest of us just sat there.”
“So I bet you thought what he was doing was real cool, eh?”
“No, I thought it was tedious, but I was amazed that someone would actually do that.”
She glanced out the window at the lane next to them, where things seemed to be moving slightly better. “Maybe we should switch to the middle lane,” she suggested, knowing that even if he was about to do just that, it had no chance of happening.
“We’re okay here,” he said. “Anyhow, it amazed me. I asked him what he did in his spare time, and he said there was no such thing.”
“No such thing as spare time?”
“Right. He said that all time was the same.”
“Whoa, big philosopher!”
Mike tried, as always, to treat it as if she were listening supportively, rather than sniping at his ass. “I asked him if he ever went to football games. He said he didn’t know anything about football, which figured. So I said that if all time is the same and it doesn’t matter, then he should come to our game on Saturday. He said, ‘Why not? I’ve got nothing better to do.’ Turned out to be his favorite expression.”
“I can smell this becoming a football story,” she said in a warning tone of voice.
“Only part of it. Well, he showed up, and it was easy to spot him because not many people came to our games. It so happened I threw four touchdown passes, and we beat ’em in the final minute. It was a big upset. Everyone was going nuts except him. He just sat there.”
“Aww,” she said in faux sympathy. “Stupid guy didn’t appreciate you. Tore you up, right?”
“Not at all, are you kidding?” he said. “I was ecstatic; I wasn’t even thinking about it. Next time I saw him in class, I asked him if he liked the game. He shrugged and said, ‘Why not? I had nothing better to do.’”
“Quite the phrasemaker, isn’t he?”
Mike took a deep, calming breath, and continued. “I said, ‘Then why not come to the next game?’ So he did. This also was a team we were supposed to lose badly to, but we made some great plays and we won. That’s when I started to think he might be a good-luck charm.”
He waited for the sneering response, but she was quiet. Maybe she was starting to get tired, although that wouldn’t matter. She could lob zingers at him in her sleep.
“The next week, after I made sure he was coming again, I told the team about it. That was a mistake. It either jinxed the good luck or it distracted them and made them keep looking up in the stands for him, because we got our asses handed to us.”
She clucked her tongue. “So I guess that was it for ol’ Ted Whatshisname, huh? Outlived his usefulness.”
“Kohovich. And of course not. Wouldn’t be a good story if it ended there.”
“Who says it’s a good story?” He uttered the words right along with her and then laughed. She failed to see the humor in it.
“So now, the team thought he was a bad-luck charm, and I told him he didn’t have to come to any more games. But I still liked the guy, and I was curious. I couldn’t believe someone could be interested in absolutely nothing and be okay about it. This was 1968, remember? The old Chinese curse about living in interesting times was in full effect that year. We had the Tet Offensive, LBJ quitting, King and Kennedy being assassinated, black power, women’s lib, riots, peace demonstrations. Our school was on the Upper West Side; we were right there when they shut down Columbia. People were crazed all around, on both sides, but not him. And not because he wasn’t aware. He knew everything in the news better than I did. In fact, he got straight As in school. He said he did all the work because, why not? He had nothing better to do.”
“Hmm,” she said, and, for the first time, he realized he actually had her attention.
“One day, a couple of weeks before graduation, I was walking in Riverside Park with Joey and one of the other guys; I forget who. They were ragging me about my friendship with Ted, which they did from time to time. They asked me what I really knew about him and, actually, it wasn’t much. I knew he didn’t have any brothers or sisters, and I knew where he and his parents lived on West 83rd, but I’d never met them, and I’d never been inside. So they said, ‘Let’s go over there, invite him to come out and have coffee or something. Let’s check out his home life.’
“It was a joke to them, but I agreed to it. His parents’ apartment was on the ground floor of a brownstone. As we got to the front door, we could hear yelling inside. It was soft and muffled through the closed door, but it was a man’s voice and a woman’s voice, and they were really going at it. I wanted to leave, but the guys laughed at me, and Joey reached over my shoulder and rang the doorbell, so it was too late.
“Ted came to the door. As soon as it opened, you could really hear them screaming at each other. Every curse word you could imagine, and sounds of things being slammed around. Ted didn’t even acknowledge it. He just smiled at me and said, ‘Oh, hi, how’re you doing?’ Just like nothing was wrong.
“I felt embarrassed, but I asked him if he wanted to come and have coffee with me and the guys. He declined. Said he was in the middle of studying for a final; can you imagine? Just then, the voices got even louder, and you could hear glass breaking. I asked him if he was sure everything was all right, and he said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ Then something smashed against something else, and it was so violent, the whole place shook. He didn’t even blink. ‘Thanks for the invite,’ he said in this matter-of-fact way. ‘I’ll see you around.’”
“Oh, boy,” said Jane, shaking her head. “At least you and I never yelled at each other in front of the kids, did we?”
“No,” he admitted, “we didn’t.”
“So what happened to him?”
“I never saw him after that, except for maybe a minute at graduation. That year the Army was taking kids straight out of high school, as soon as they were eighteen. I was lucky; I tore up my knee so bad in the final game of the season that I was 4-F. But not Ted—he was draftable. I don’t know if he thought he had nothing better to do than go to Vietnam, but that’s where he went.”
“Well, he evidently survived,” she said, “because he’s going to be at this thing today.”
“Yes, he did, and yes, he is,” Mike replied. “But a year later, while he was in ’Nam and I was in college, I read in the paper about his parents. One of their fights finally got so bad, the neighbors called the cops. By the time they got there, his father had beaten his mother to death and then taken a gun and killed himself.”
There was silence from the passenger’s seat. He glanced over at his wife, who had gone utterly pale.
“Don’t worry, that won’t be us,” he reassured her. “We don’t yell at each other.”
At that moment, for some mysterious reason, the cars up ahead began to move, and the traffic suddenly cleared right up.
Several hours later, they were on their way home. At Jane’s insistence they’d taken the Saw Mill River Parkway, and now they were standing absolutely still.
“I’ll bet 684 is just zipping along,” Mike said offhandedly.
“Fuck you,” Jane muttered.
The car stereo was playing a CD that was considered neutral territory, the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.”…and in the middle of negotiations, you break down.
“Well, your friend Ted sure was a dud,” Jane said, “although I noticed how fascinated you were by his wife.”
“You mean because I actually spoke to her? Man, what a letch I am.” In fact, Mike thought Lisa Kohovich was easily the most attractive woman there but was wise enough to keep that impression to himself. She was a good ten years younger than the others and looked like she’d once been a model. “She was talking to everybody,” he pointed out, “including you.”
“I know; she was going on and on about all the medals he won in Vietnam and how it changed his life. I couldn’t wait to get away from her.”
“He didn’t mention the medals when I talked to him. But he said he was surprised that the others looked to him for leadership. I guess it was ’cause he knew how to handle the boredom. And I’ll bet the fact that he didn’t care if he lived or died made him good in combat.”
“And now, he’s this motivational guru? Give me a break.”
Mike laughed. “Did you notice what it said on his business card?”
“Yeah, some crap about every moment being unique and precious.”
“A long way from ‘All time is the same.’”
Jane lowered the window, leaned outside, and craned her neck at the line of cars, to the accompaniment of Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight. Carry that weight a long time. “Jesus, I can’t stand this!”
He looked at her in profile, her once pretty face clenched in ugliness, as she sat there fuming. All that emotional energy, he realized, and for what? Because they were stuck in traffic? If they got home one minute later or two hours later, what did it matter? What were they going to do when they got there? Just what they were doing now, using up their lives in petty aggravation and unfocused, low-level rage.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
He lowered his window, stuck his head outside, and, to his wife’s absolute shock, screamed at the top of his lungs, “I’VE GOT NOTHING BETTER TO DO!!”
A chorus of car horns applauded him.