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.
"The hell it wasn't," Early shot back. "I asked you this morning if it was something beautiful for you and you didn't answer. You want to clear that up before we go on?" he asked Susan.
She stared at her husband. Her lips were pinched into a stubborn line.
"Yeah... that's kind of what I thought," Early remarked in a tired voice. He let the silence build.
"I just can't get this out of my head, Susan" he said finally. "You don't even want me to call what you did "tawdry" but tawdry is really a very nice way of putting what I actually think about what you did. Want to know how I really feel about it?" Early asked his silent wife.
He peeked between the banister posts but could see little of his wife's expression. He shrugged.
"And the announcer reminds us to supply the answer in the form of a question," Early said glibly. "Okay, Susan... what do you call a two-day suck and fuck?" he demanded.
The words echoed in the dim room and then died a slow death in a far corner. Neither of them broke the silence for a while.
"I never thought I'd ever hear you speak of me that way," Susan said faintly. She began crying softly again.
Early snickered, letting it through his wife's tears.
"I never thought you would do me that way, dear wife. But I understand where you're coming from. It's kind of... disconcerting, you might say... for me too, when someone who insists she loves me turns hateful and nasty," he drawled.
"You can imagine what I was feeling, sitting there in our bedroom while you lied in you teeth about how lonely you were going to be that night, darling," Early continued sarcastically.
Susan flushed. Early was surprised he could see her face darkening. He looked around, taken aback for a moment.
It was only a passing car. The headlights momentarily lit the room through curtains not quite completely drawn. The fast moving vehicle moved down the street and the living room returned to dimness.
"Early, I can't tell you how sorry I am about this, honey," Susan said in a despairing voice, finally breaking the hush the intrusion had created. "I didn't set out to hurt you. I wouldn't have done it if I thought it would... no, I mean..."
Early's chuckle was too close to hysteria in his ears. He ruthlessly throttled back his emotions so they wouldn't overwhelm him. He sat silently, fighting for control.
Susan tried again. "Honey, can't you see there was nothing about this that had anything to do with you? It was just about John and how great he was."
She stopped again, realizing what she'd said had come out even more askew than what she'd said before.
"Oh, God... I didn't mean that. I... it wasn't like it sounded, Early. Please believe me."
Susan's voice faltered and ended with a whisper. The force with which Early was shaking his head caught her attention even in the dimness. Her explanations had enflamed rather than soothed.
Provoked, Early attacked.
"Hey, Susan... what do the file clerks get from you when they do an especially good job for you?" Early asked harshly. "Do you give all the paralegals a blowjob for the research they do for you? My goodness, Susan, how do you schedule all these "thank you's" for a job well done every week, honey?" Early continued. Susan's sharp gasp told him how his words hurt.
Early was beginning to understand he hadn't actually drunk himself sober in the later afternoon as he'd supposed. He told himself he'd regret tomorrow having badgered his wife so viciously tonight, but for now he really didn't care.
But... he could stop now. Her pain was enough. If nothing else, he owed it to the woman she had been to stop the vindictive accusations. He stood, balancing carefully as he rose. Though he'd done nothing particularly physical today, he was exhausted.
"Early," Susan said hurriedly. "You still love me... you told me so this morning... we're going to work this out, right?" she pleaded.
"That's what I told you... yes," Early acknowledged, "but I hadn't thought things all the way through," he added. "I thought I had, but I hadn't." He paused to organize his words.
"Yeah... I do love you... but I don't know if it'll be enough, Susan. I just don't know how I can get by this... thing you did to us," Early murmured softly.
"It took me some time to figure everything out," he said to his sobbing wife. "I quit drinking booze back in... that bar... and I just drank Cokes for the longest time. You know? It's a curious thing, but waiting in a bar to sober up... it gives a man a lot of time to just sit and think. Strange, huh?"
Early was quiet for a time. He didn't know how to express the emotions that had come to him in the sheltering darkness of the hotel bar. His wife's tears didn't affect him as they had in the years they'd been married though. He was quietly surprised at how detached he was beginning to feel.
"What's come to bother me most of all is how you planned this out so very carefully," Early said slowly.
"In the law, what do you all call that? It's... darn it... what's it called? Oh! Got it.
"Premeditation. Yeah, that's it... premeditation" Early told her. "You waited until you found out I had to go on a business trip and then you set everything up very carefully, didn't you? In fact, you couldn't have done it without a lot of that premeditation and planning stuff, could you?" he asked Susan.
She couldn't answer. Her head hung low. She would give anything to counter her husband's argument but nothing came to her. She didn't agree with his reasoning, but she was beginning to despair of ever convincing him of how she had felt about this whole thing.
"You had to let Jennifer off for a nice long weekend, didn't you?" Early continued. "I guess you didn't want to ask her to lie for you, huh? I mean... no sense in letting her know about what you were going to do, right?
"Jennifer's a standup kind of lady. Hell, she probably wouldn't respect you a damn bit if she knew you were sleeping around, would she? She'd know right up front there was something wrong if I called and I didn't have a clue about you taking a little holiday, wouldn't she?" Early asked. "After all, you'll be working with Jennifer for a long time to come, won't you?" He climbed another step up the staircase.
"Jennifer must be one hell of a secretary," Early muttered. "You respected her so very much... and disrespected me at the same time," he added.
"On the other hand, it sure didn't bother you using that temp secretary to cover for you, did it? You could use her like the tool she was, couldn't you? You could afford to ignore her feelings about cheating, lying, and such, right?" Early asked his wife. Susan didn't respond. Her face was in her hands and her shoulders shook as she cried.
"Well, if you haven't heard, she did her job real well," Early commented. "She lied for you every time I called... and did it pretty well too," he added.
He began to climb the staircase again, stopping only when a new question occurred to him.
"Darn, honey," he called down to his wife, "didn't you understand that temporary secretary is going to put things together some day? The firm isn't going to use her just this one time... she'll be back as someone else's temp some day.
"All she has to do is have lunch with the other secretaries and compare notes when she comes back. And when she does, this little repayment for good ol' John is going to be common knowledge all over the firm, right?
"So... how're you going to keep her quiet, Susan? What are you going to do for that temp, huh? Or do you swing both ways?" he asked maliciously. He told himself it was the booze talking again. He almost believed it.
He warned himself he'd decided not to attack his wife on this level. He wanted to stay on a higher plane... but the pain wouldn't let up. It kept stabbing deep inside him whenever his attention drifted from the iron control he was striving for.
"Oh, God," Susan sobbed. "Early, please... I'll do anything to get us past this," she whispered. She was no longer concerned with the obscene language her husband was using.
Early noted Susan didn't reply to his questions. It was no surprise. He knew his wife well. He should. They'd lived as a married couple for a long time and had been together even longer. She had to ignore his suggestion the whole office would soon be aware of the tryst. He was certain she hadn't considered such a thing and the prospect of everyone knowing was too devastating for her to think about.
It was sad, he mused. Adulterers plan only for the best-case scenario. They ignore the possibility things might fall apart on them and they don't bother setting up contingency plans. He felt a twinge of sorrow for what his wife would soon be facing in her own office. It passed quickly though. She'd brought this upon herself.