This is the fifth semi-annual Jake Rivers Invitational. The initial one was based on the Statler Brother's song, "This Bed of Rose's." The second used the Marty Robbins El Paso trilogy: "El Paso," "El Paso City," and "Faleena." The third had stories based on the various versions of, "Maggie May" or, "Maggie Mae." The fourth invitational was based on any Country and Western song.
The current invitational is based on any song written or performed by Merle Haggard. This song is about a couple who have let their love go stagnant and the steps they take to try to breathe life back into their marriage.
"If we're not back in love by Monday,
We can't say we didn't try.
Just before we bury our love,
Let's make sure we've let it die."
Marlene spent most of the flight to Miami silently staring out the window, trying, I guess, to glean wisdom from the cottony clouds that dotted the late summer sky.
But at least she was there.
I hadn't been at all confident that she'd agree to this trip when I'd first suggested it a month earlier. I really thought she'd shoot me down with some sarcastic comment, as had been her style too many times over the past couple of years, or claim she simply had too much to do at her job to take a week off.
Truthfully, neither one of us could really afford to take the time off work. I own a store that sells business machines and Marlene is an attorney specializing in corporate law in the mid-sized city where we settled when she finished law school and got her first job with the firm she's still with.
As busy as we were, however, we really couldn't afford not to take the time off work. To put it simply, if my wife hadn't chosen to make this trip, we were headed for divorce court.
Maybe we were headed there anyway, but I'd be damned if I was going to let 20 years together -- 19 as husband and wife, with three kids, to boot -- slip away without a fight.
How did it come to this? How did two people who were once crazy in love end up one step away from divorce?
Therein lies the story ... or at least the backdrop for the story.
My full given name is James Boswell Foster, but I have always answered to Jimbo. I'm not sure how that happened; maybe one of my younger siblings tagged me with it as a corruption of my first and middle names.
The only people who call me James are my wife and my mother, and it's ironic that my formal first name has become a pet name for my wife.
I come from a big, rambunctious Catholic family from a smallish town in the Mid-South. My dad was a pharmacist for a national chain and my mom was a housewife. I think the term, "domestic goddess," fit my mother, because she was no mere housewife.
For one thing, she gave birth to seven children in a 10-year period, and I'm smack dab in the middle. I have three brothers and three sisters -- two brothers and a sister are older, two sisters and a brother are younger.
And fie on anyone who said Mom didn't work. She was all the time cooking, cleaning, sewing and repairing stuff, plus she planted flower beds and kept a vegetable garden in the summer. Of course, that's not to even mention the job of simply shepherding seven very active kids.
My dad made a decent living, but he didn't do well enough to afford too many frivolities, and all of us kids were expected to pull our weight around the house.
Dad was a shrewd fellow and early on he devised a scale for our allowances, based on our grades and participation in school activities. The higher our grades and the more things we did at school, the more we got in allowances.
He and Mom weren't keen on us having part-time jobs while we were in high school -- as long as we stayed busy and productive while we were there.
As a result, I played all the sports I could at my high school. I wasn't a star or anything, but I wasn't a lump on the bench, either.
Well, let me back up a bit. I didn't get a lot of quality minutes in basketball, seeing as how I was a little too Caucasian to hang with the brothers on what was a really good small-town team.
In fact, one of the guys on our team made it to the NBA and stayed there for several years. So, needless to say, I was about the third or fourth guy off the bench, and the only time I saw any extended time on the court was during garbage time.
But I hustled in practice and I could bang on the boards some and maybe hit a jump shot or two, so that got me some props from the better players. And I just enjoyed being on the team. The guys were great, the coach was cool and we won a lot of games.
Baseball was really my thing, and I started in left field my junior and senior seasons. I was a good fielder and a decent hitter, especially in the clutch. I also started my senior year in football at strong safety.
But even though I loved sports, I knew pretty early that they weren't going to be my ticket to college. That would come from grades and test scores, and I'm proud to say that I did well enough at both that I earned a very good scholarship to one of the state universities.
And that's where I met Marlene. We had a class together my junior year and we got paired up for the big class project. I was a business major with a minor in computer science, while she was a pre-law major with a minor in business.
Even then, she knew what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to go to law school and become a corporate attorney. She was odd that way. Criminal law -- the glamorous aspect of the profession -- had little appeal to her.
But contracts, torts and other behind-the-scenes details of legality lit the fire of her ambition.
For me, it was love at first sight. I thought Marlene was the most beautiful woman in the world, and when I'd tell friends that, they'd look puzzled and ask what drugs I was on.
You see, to the outside world, Marlene presents a very brusque, very business-like persona. She's always kept her brown hair short in an easy-to-maintain style, she's always gone easy on the makeup and she dresses very conservatively.
Guys at college thought of her as an ice queen, but it didn't take me long to learn that behind that wall was a caring, warm and very sexy woman.
One thing I have always been able to do is sell things, especially myself. Some people have it, most people don't. I do. No brag, just fact.
I'm not a pushy person, just someone who can read people, knows the product he's selling and can convince people to buy that product, whatever it may be. Honestly, the trick is ... well, honesty. I don't bullshit people into buying something they don't want.
And I'm here to say the best sales job I ever did was selling myself to Marlene Fisher. Yeah, Fisher. That's how we got thrown together in the business school class. Our last names were next to each other on the class roll, and that's how the professor paired us off.
It took about half the semester for her to see me as anything but her project partner. She was a little hesitant about getting into a relationship, because she was a little shy, she was really, really serious about her school work, and she'd been burned by a high school boyfriend.
But, little by little, I drew her out. When we were together working on the project, we talked about ourselves, and I listened to her and paid attention to her. I would come to find out that hadn't usually been the case with the men in her life.
Eventually, we started dating, and the night after we turned in our final portfolio -- and earned the highest grade in the class on it -- we made love for the very first time.
I was quite a bit more experienced than Marlene was. In fact, I was only the third guy she'd had sex with, and it quickly became apparent that I was light-years better than the other two.
Again, I'm not bragging, but I'd been around. I lost my virginity when I was 16 to one of my mother's best friends, who caught me on the rebound from a demoralizing divorce.
I was doing some yard work for her that summer, one thing led to another and we ended up in her bed. There was no pretense that we were in love. We used each other, but in a good way. She showed me how to please a woman, and I showed her that she was still desirable.
After that, I was a pretty heavy horndog through the rest of high school. Ironically, I got far less pussy once I went to college, but only because I became a lot more choosy about where I put my dick.
In high school, I'd fuck any girl that would let me, and that resulted in a nice little dose of the clap not long after I graduated. Fortunately, it wasn't anything serious, and medication cleared it up.
Still, that was the single most embarrassing moment of my life to have to ask my dad, the pharmacist, to fill a prescription of antibiotics after my visit to the county health clinic. So I was careful about sex in college.
But once we took the plunge, Marlene and I were insatiable. We loved each other, and we loved making love with each other.
We both stayed at college through that summer, getting a few more credit hours in, plus I had a part-time job at an electronics mart that I liked. So we spent as much of our free time as possible together, a lot of it in bed.
Unless you see Marlene up close and nearly naked, and not many people have, you really don't appreciate what she offers as a sexual enticement.
She's slightly taller than average, about 5-foot-8, and slender, with a narrow waist, a tight little butt and a perky set of B-cups on her chest. Her best feature, by far, are a pair of gorgeous legs that just go on and on and on.
She's not a classic beauty, but she's cute, and she has the kind of complexion that can take a generous amount of sun.
We started talking about a future together pretty early in our relationship, and we were married a month or so after we graduated.
By then, Marlene had been accepted into law school and I had my first job, as an IT manager for a mid-sized corporation located in the city where the law school was located.
Like I said, Marlene was a meticulous planner, and as soon as she graduated from law school -- with honors, I might add -- we set about starting a family. In short order we had our three children, each evenly spaced two years apart.
Kyle, our oldest, was born exactly on our fourth anniversary, then we had a daughter, Lisa, and another son, Jacob. After Jacob was born, Marlene announced that she was done having babies. She got her tubes tied and strongly encouraged me to have a vasectomy, which I did.
I'm not sure when the rot started to set in our marriage. Certainly, with three small children and each of us with our own careers, our sex life took a nosedive. But for a long time we still took time for each other.
I guess the first thing that happened was I got restless in my job. I was with a good, thriving company, and I was moving up the ladder, but it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life.
When you're a born salesman like me, you want to sell. It's in your blood, a part of your nature. And I wasn't selling anything in my job.
So, when an acquaintance put his business machine store up for sale not long after our 10th anniversary, I jumped on it.
With Marlene's encouragement -- and legal guidance -- I put together a business plan, secured a loan and become the proud owner of Standard Office Machines.
I think at that point, I was on top of the world.
Marlene and I had just come back from a romantic second honeymoon to Sanibel Island in Florida, where we walked the sugar-white sands of the Gulf of Mexico and made love during the day, and prowled the clubs and cafes and made love every night.
And I was about to live out my dream as a business owner, selling a product I knew like the back of my hand.
Really, it was a fool-proof enterprise. The store came with a built-in clientele, good name recognition -- both for the store and the lines we carried -- and a knowledgeable staff.
I did make a few changes. For one thing, I was much more public than the previous owner had been. He figured the products would sell themselves, and they did, up to a point. But I knew it wouldn't hurt to get out and drum up business, which I did.
Another thing I did, soon after I bought the store, was move the location to a part of town that was seeing much more growth and into a larger, newer facility.
That allowed me to pursue the other major change I implemented, which was to introduce computers and computer-related products to complement the copiers and fax machines that had previously been the store's bread-and-butter.
The most important thing, which was something I continued, was to uphold the store's reputation for service. I knew going in that we wouldn't be able to beat the big chains in terms of price and volume, but we could damn sure beat them with quick, reliable service.
My thinking was that if your computer froze up and you didn't know what to do about it, you didn't want to wait two weeks for the Nerd Patrol to fit you into their schedule. And that's where we came in.
If you called us and needed a technician to come look at your computer or copy machine, we'd have someone there no later than the next business day. Guaranteed. That was the way the previous owner had done business and that's how I did it, too.
Needless to say, the business was a success, but it was a success because I put in the extra time to make it a success, and that was time that I wasn't spending with my wife.
And, to be fair, that was around the time when Marlene started working in earnest toward making partner at her firm, taking on the hardest jobs, the most demanding cases, which often required out-of-town travel. So she didn't have as much time to spend with me, either.
To compound the situation, I decided at that time that one way to maximize my time with the kids was to serve as a coach. Kyle was expressing an interest in baseball, and I'd been dissatisfied with his first coach in T-ball.
Since I no longer had the constraints of a 9-to-5 job, I could devote time to his team. And when Lisa got to be 6-years-old and wanted to play soccer, I volunteered to coach that as well.
In that vein, things slowly went into a steady decline over the next eight years or so. It was so slow that I really didn't notice until about a year earlier, when I stopped to think about when Marlene and I had last had sex and couldn't remember the exact date.
I realized then that a sex life that had been three or four times a week -- and sometimes more -- had dwindled to about once every six weeks or so. And when we did, it was fairly perfunctory, as if we were just fulfilling an obligation.
Something else I noticed, too, was that we were arguing more, and trading snippy comments with each other over trivial stuff. Little habits and quirks that we once shrugged off now became bones of contention.
And as I worked out the changes we were going through in my mind, suspicion began to grow that perhaps Marlene wasn't sleeping alone on those business trips she was taking, or that maybe it wasn't just work that was being done when she stayed late at the office.
I felt in my mind that she had changed when she made partner, as she done two years before that. She'd become less tolerant of me, spent less time with the kids and had much less patience with everyone she encountered.
For her part, she thought I was spending too much time involved with sports, which was true. If I wasn't coaching one or other of the kids, I was making weekend trips to ball games or watching games on TV.
It all came to a head on the night of our 19th anniversary, in June.
By this time, I'd sent Kyle on to other coaches and was helping with Jacob's teams, and his team had a game that night.
I didn't forget our anniversary, and sent Marlene a card and a floral arrangement. But I thought it was understood that any night out to celebrate would have to wait until the weekend.
But apparently, she didn't see it that way. I knew something was wrong when she failed to show up for the game. Even when she worked late, Marlene tried to get to the park for at least the late innings, but she never showed this time.
When we got home, she was almost halfway through a bottle of wine that I'd been planning to have that weekend, when we had our little anniversary dinner, and the sour look on her face told me she wasn't happy.
And I wasn't happy either, but not for that reason. Our team had lost to a team we should have beaten easily and Jacob had made a critical mistake that resulted in three runs.
Usually I let those things slide, because I realize that kids that age are going to make mistakes. But it had been a mistake he'd made because of laziness, and that was the one thing I didn't tolerate from my players -- my son included.
After I'd sent Jacob up to get his shower and get ready for bed, Marlene had huffed and puffed about my attitude, and I'd called her out on it. I forget exactly what she said, but it was some smartass comment about how she'd spent our anniversary.
It escalated from there. She said I was spending too much time at ball games; I said she was spending too much time at work; she accused me of flirting with the single moms on the team and that's when I stepped in it big time, and I remember that exchange vividly.
"You think I'm screwing around on you?" I said heatedly. "What about you? How do I know you're not fucking your clients when you're on the road? Or maybe you're getting bent over the desk when you're 'working late.'"
I'd finally given voice to the paranoid suspicions that had been eating away at me for months, and I knew as soon as I said it that it was a mistake.
As I said, I've always been able to read people, and I knew as soon as I saw Marlene's face that my suspicions were wrong.
There was not one hint of guilt on her face, no "oh, shit, he knows" look in her eyes, and she didn't go pale with fear. On the contrary. Her face immediately turned a deep crimson and righteous anger blazed in her eyes.
"How dare you," she hissed. "You think I've gotten where I am because I slept my way into my job? You fucking bastard."
Then she turned on her heel, drained the remaining wine from her glass and stormed outside to the back deck, slamming the door on her way out.
But not before she turned and gave me a parting shot.
"Maybe I should go out and have an affair," she said coldly. "It would be better than what I've gotten from you lately."
The truth is, if I'd really thought about it, I'd have known Marlene wasn't playing around at work. I'd gotten to know all of her associates over the years, and they were good people who respected my wife and were friendly toward me.
At any rate, I spent the next six weeks trying every way to Sunday to apologize and make it up to her. We sort of reached an uneasy truce, and even had sex after a Fourth of July barbeque where Marlene got a little drunk and let me have my way with her.
But I knew we were just going through the motions, treading water in our relationship. It wasn't just that we weren't having much sex. It was the little things -- the lack of intimacy, the lack of meaningful conversation, the lack of laughter -- that told me our marriage was in deep trouble.
It was like neither one of us cared any more, and I think we were ready to just let it peter out.
Then something happened that made me determined to make one last effort. I'd already been thinking about cutting back on my coaching duties, when Lisa came to me one night in early August, right before school started. Marlene had already gone to bed and I was just sitting up watching television.
My 13-year-old daughter was turning into a fine young lady, with her mother's looks and brains, and her father's personality.
"Daddy?" she said as she sat down next to me on the sofa in our den. "Why don't you and Mom talk any more? Why don't you laugh any more?"
I couldn't answer her, so I just mumbled something about how couples sometimes get in a rut.
"Daddy, please don't get a divorce," she said suddenly, then she buried her face in my chest and cried. "I love you both and I want to see you guys happy again. You're both miserable and I hate it. Please? At least try?"
I got her calmed down, then she told me that she wasn't going to play soccer that fall, that she was going to go out for the cross country team at her school.
That decision gave me something to think about as far as my time was concerned.
Kyle was going to be playing football for the high school varsity that fall, and Jacob was playing Midget football, which I'd never gotten involved with because I'd always spent the fall season coaching Lisa in soccer, a game I'd come to enjoy.
What that all meant was that for the first time in a long time, I wouldn't be coaching any of the kids in the fall, and, as a result, I'd have a lot more free time than I'd had in the past.
Long after Lisa went to bed that night, I sat up pondering things, and went to bed determined to take action.
The next day, I made some phone calls.
I called about hotel reservations for a week back in Sanibel, which I'd come to look back on as the high-water mark of our marriage. We'd gone back a couple of times, and while it wasn't as magical as that 10th anniversary, it had still been fun.
I also called some airlines to get some price quotes, called my mother to see if she and Dad could come down and sit with the kids for the Labor Day weekend, and finally called an old sitter we'd used when the kids were younger to see if she could and stay for a day or two.
By now, our children were old enough that they didn't need a baby sitter when Marlene and I went out at night, rare as those occasions had become. But they still weren't old enough to stay by themselves overnight for an extended period of time, especially during school.
That night, I loaded a small cooler with a six pack of beer, put on my swim suit and went out to the deck. I swam several laps, then sat back with a beer and watched the sun set over the horizon.