Along with many others, I've had the story "How High A Price?" by The Troubador on my mind for a few years now. It's a classic. In that story, The Troubador invited others to supply their own ending for what he considered an unfinished tale. I'm not so sure it was, in fact, unfinished... but since The Troubador DID make the invitation, here's my contribution. What follows can't stand independently. I think you'll need to read The Troubador's original story first for my take to make sense. My thanks to The Troubador for giving me permission to extend his story with what follows.
This begins immediately after Early closes the patio door on his wife's sobbing.
Early wasn't outside very long. The sounds of a cheerful Saturday afternoon in the neighborhood were irritating. How could everyone be so cheerfully absorbed in their mundane little lives when his was so thoroughly shattered? Every happy shriek of childish laughter raked across his nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. How dare they?
He went back inside and stalked past Susan. She'd collapsed, still crying, across the sofa cushions during the short time he was outside. Early said nothing to her as he passed. The resentment sparked inside him on the patio threatened to consume him now. He was afraid if he and his wife spoke to each other, the anger would explode into rage... and he didn't want that. It would serve no purpose to lose control.
When the clock said it was time for lunch, frustration and irritation still controlled his thoughts. He made his way out the back door and climbed into the SUV. He didn't tell Susan where he was going. In truth, he didn't know himself.
He drove without purpose until he saw the billboard outside the big hotel. Thoughts of finding a decent café somewhere for a meal were discarded in favor of anesthetizing the pain.
The dimly lit lounge... it was a piano bar later in the evening... just off the hotel lobby was a place he would normally find repugnant. This afternoon though, it was a refuge. He didn't even have to talk to anyone except for the waitress who brought him a drink whenever he called for one. After a couple of times, simply lifting his empty glass to catch her eye was enough. He had no need to communicate anything beyond the need for more alcohol.
He took comfort from his anonymity in the dimly lit room. After all, he had no expectations of anyone here that could be crushed. There was no one here who could break his heart. He was safe here.
It was late when he returned home. The sun had been down for hours and the streetlights were shining indistinctly through the living room windows. Early had taken onboard sufficient alcohol for a good buzz and stayed there for a while. Instead of leaving the lounge when he tired of the sensation, he hung on long enough to down a quantity of undiluted Cokes until he felt sober again. He had no desire to wreck anyone else's life by having an auto accident. His and Susan's lives were more than enough devastation to deal with.
The two hamburgers consumed on the way home were in lieu of lunch and dinner both. The grease, both real and imagined, lay heavy on his stomach. The onions he'd forgotten to have removed were already threatening to come back up. Somehow, it fit the pattern of the rest of the day for him to feel physically ill now.
"I was worried," Susan said tearfully. The straight-backed chair she sat on was hidden in a dark, out of the way corner of the living room.
Early hadn't seen her when he came in the door but glanced her way now. He was in a mood to pass her by, but the habits of a lifetime stopped him. He was something of a headhunter in his professional life, but a man considerate of others in his private one. Early couldn't ignore his wife but... he couldn't conceal his feelings from her either.
"Your worry is too little... and about a week too late," Early said huskily. He told himself it was the raw alcohol he'd downed that day that coarsened his voice. He watched Susan wilt, sagging back against the chair back.
"Oh, God, Early," she whispered. "I just can't make you see how small a thing this is. It just didn't have anything to do with you and me. It wasn't important... it just didn't mean anything to us, Early. It's not a part of us.
"I... I just had to... it was something I owed John. Please, baby, I still love you... and you love me, right? Isn't there anything... anything at all that I can do to make things better?"
Early's belly tightened spasmodically. He nearly lost the onions, along with everything else he'd eaten with them. He didn't try to speak for a long moment while he fought for control. Walking another couple of paces, he stopped at the bottom of the staircase and put a hand on the railing for support.
"Something you owed him? Something you had to do to "repay" him..." Early muttered.
His wife could barely understand his words. Before she could decipher what he was saying and find an answer, Early pressed on.
"You keep saying that, Susan, and I have to admit... I just don't understand it at all," Early commented.
Susan dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a tissue. She tried again to explain.
"I just felt I had to do it," she said softly. "He deserved something for all the hard work he did for me on the Melrose account, and I..."
"Why not a marble, gold-inlaid, desk set?" Early interjected, interrupting his wife for nearly the first time in their marriage. His voice was a little stronger than it had been, but it was still gruff and low-pitched.
"What?" Susan asked, momentarily confused. "I... oh..." Her own voice failed. She had no idea how to answer her husband's question.
"I don't know why that wouldn't have been just the thing, Susan. Nothing says "thank you" to someone you work with like a fancy, expensive desk set, right?" Early asked in a facetious tone. He didn't wait for an explanation from his wife.
"Or how about the finest set of titanium golf clubs in the world," Early continued.
"Hell, why couldn't you buy him a new Mercedes instead, Susan? Would you please tell me exactly why you had to "repay" Mr. Big John Stickner by fucking him?"
Susan flinched at the crude ending to Early's question. Early never resorted to foul language.
While she fumbled for something to say, her husband sat down on the second step and leaned against the wall. He could barely see across the room to where his wife sat through the banister railing. He didn't mind. He didn't really want to see her.
"I can't explain it, Early," Susan said softly. "I know it sounds crazy, but it seemed like I had to give him a small piece of myself to show how much I valued everything he'd done for me." She thought for a moment.
"He'd worked so hard, Early, and none of it was part of his normal job. He did it for me. I needed to repay him in a way that showed him I understood how personal a thing his support for me was... you know? What he did for me... for us, Early... is going to be the difference between staying where I was and getting that partnership," she moaned.
Early laughed harshly. The cruel amusement shocked Susan into silence. She stared, wide-eyed, at her husband. There had been a trace of derision in the laughter and that was so very out of character for her husband.
"Hell, Susan," Early choked out. "Couldn't you buy him a Rolex with a nice inscription on the back? That's kind of personal, don't you think? Not as personal as... underwear perhaps, but still personal, right?
"No? Not personal enough, huh?" He shook his head, seeming to pity his wife as she sat immobile and silent.
"Nah, you couldn't do any of those things, could you? You had to cheat, lie, deceive, and betray our marriage in order to find something worthy enough to give ol' John for helping you with the account. I sure hope he values your "gift," Susan. I used to think it was pretty special myself," Early told her.
Before she could protest, Early slapped his hands together briskly. The sharp sound cut off whatever she had been about to say.
"So... what are you going to give him the next time he does a favor for you, huh?" he asked Susan.
She stared at Early as one would a viper about to strike. A stricken expression spread over her features. She'd thought this idea had already been corrected this morning.
"Early, honey, I already told you there won't be a next time," she assured him in a low, earnest voice. "He knows that," she added. "He knows this was an expression of my admiration and respect... and that it could never be repeated," she finished.
Early snorted loudly. "Bull shit," he said succinctly.
"He's got your number now, babe," he told her. "All he has to do is be nice and do just a tiny, little bit more than just his regular job and you're going to reward him with a few nights in the sack every now and then," Early said.
"Hey!" Early remarked as a thought occurred to him. "A couple more accounts, a few more negotiations he helps you with... hell, you could be in charge of that whole place in a few years, couldn't you? Darn, now I call that upward mobility with a capital M."
Susan's face must have blanched in the darkness, but Early couldn't see. He didn't really care anymore if she turned pale or reddened with embarrassment.
"Early," Susan said quickly. "This isn't right. You keep thinking of this like it was a... a tawdry rendezvous in a cheap motel or something and that's not what it was," she insisted.
.... There is more of this story ...