The Writers Voice
The World's Favourite Literary Website

The Modification


Harry Buschman

Her phone buzzed. It was Helen at the switchboard -- "Mildred, there's a David James for you, shall I put him through?"

Mildred hesitated a second -- more from shock than a lack of decision. "Yes, Helen. Thanks -- I'll talk to him."

"Milly, it's Dave." Then, almost in the same breath, he added, "Don't hang
up, okay?"

Mildred sighed, stood at her desk, turned, walked to the window and looked out at the late afternoon traffic. She took a deep breath and said, "What's on your mind, Dave?"

Dave sensed he called at a bad time. He was half tempted to hang up. But he was desperate! If only he could talk to her, he knew she would see things his way.

"I thought we could have a drink together, that's all. It's been a while -- and I'd like to know how you're getting on .... how Carrie is .... the house ...."

"Why this afternoon, Dave? Is it really all that important to you?" She couldn't help herself, it just slipped out -- hearing his voice, she supposed. Funny how you can recognize someone's voice even though you haven't heard it in years.

"Well, okay then. I just thought maybe you'd like to."

"I didn't say I wouldn't. Just make sure you clear it with .... what's her name, Sandra?" That was another dig; Mildred wasn't going to let him forget.

Dave got it, she could hear him tighten up. "I will. Six o'clock at Hurley's, that okay with you?"

"Yes, but I haven't got much time, you know -- I have to get home, Carrie leaves for school this weekend."


Mildred stood across the street from Hurley's Bar. From under the awning of The Mandarin she could see Hurley's front door. She wasn't going in until she saw Dave go in -- make him sit there and sweat it out a little, then go in. It was childish she knew, but she didn't want him to see her waiting. The weather was misty, one of those cold mists that come with early fall in New York. It made her feel very alone. She got that feeling a lot after the divorce, taking care of everything herself -- the bills -- the house, but most of all Carrie, especially in the beginning. Carrie loved her father and she couldn't accept any part of the divorce -- even blamed Mildred for Dave's infidelity. It was unfair, really unfair -- she didn't know half of the stunts he pulled. Did he think she was blind? Damn him anyway!

Mildred was getting herself worked up again. She took a deep breath and lighted a cigarette to ease the tension -- that was another thing. The cigarettes! She never smoked until after Dave left.

Then suddenly there he was at Hurley's door. She watched him turn around once, shrug and go inside. Had he seen her? She didn't think so, but he was a sharp one. He looked a little thinner, a little down at the heels .... and still wearing that old dark brown raincoat; maybe things weren't going too well at home. What was her name again? Sandra! .... what could you expect? Mildred finished her cigarette, dropped it in the gutter and crossed the street. He would probably be seated at one of the duet tables in the back of the room. She checked her coat and stopped in the ladies room -- she wanted to look poised and self-controlled. God knows she wasn't! If the son of a bitch only knew how she missed him!

As she entered the bar they saw each other at the same time and Dave, who already had a drink in front of him, rose quickly to his feet and pulled the empty chair back for her.

"Thanks for coming, Milly." They looked each other over quickly. "What'll  y'have? I wasn't sure you'd come, y'know."

The difference between them was striking. Mildred was poised. She had checked her coat, while Dave had thrown his over the back of his chair. He was wearing black slacks and a brown jacket. One of the tabs of his shirt collar was curled up like the ear of a rodent, and his smile flickered on and off as though he wasn't sure he should smile or not -- that was rodent-like too. She sat across the table  from him, silently. She took her gloves off and folded them over her purse.

"You're looking great, Milly, aren't you wearing a coat? It was raining when I came in -- listen to me -- I'm talking a blue streak. Well, after all -- three years, you know?"

"I checked it."

"What? Oh, the coat -- yes I guess I should have done that too. Did I tell you how nice you look?" He buttoned his jacket and made a nervous attempt to straighten his tie. "What would you like, Milly? A little wine -- a Manhattan maybe?" He waved his empty glass at the waitress -- "Daisy .... Daisy ...."

He shot a guilty glance at Mildred. "I come in here for a pick-me-up between jobs sometimes."

"You working two jobs, Dave? I'll have a glass of white wine, by the way."

"I'll have a refill, Daisy, and the lady will have a Chardonnay."

Dave leaned back in his seat and tried to relax. They looked each other over carefully with the remembered intimacy of a ten year relationship; like old  adversaries, they knew each other's strengths and weaknesses. Dave sensed he  was the weaker of the two this evening, and like an out of shape boxer, if he was to gain any advantage from this brief encounter he would have to cover up  and let Mildred take the offensive.

"You were right all along, Milly -- it should never have happened. I was a fool. How could I have been so stupid?"

"I asked you if you were working two jobs, Dave."

He felt pinned down -- she was at the top of her form -- "Wasn't gonna miss
a thing," he thought. He took a deep breath and let the words out slowly. "Yes, I had to. I do telemarketing downtown at night. Sandra .... see, she quit working some time back. Her painting, you know? She hasn't sold a thing since her exhibition last year, and she says it's because she can't put her mind to .... Oh, thanks Daisy." He handed his empty glass to the waitress and she set the drinks in front of them, then placed the bill on the table close to Dave. "Where was I? Yes Sandra ...." He noticed Milly wince whenever he mentioned Sandra's name. "Cheers Milly -- let's look at the bright side."

"I don't think you can support two families, Dave." She might have been talking to her gardener. "You had a devil of a time making ends meet with Carrie and me -- now look at you."

"I'm doin' my best, but it's not easy -- I've had a run of bad luck Milly, you know that. I somehow seem to get mixed up with companies that are going down hill -- that's not my fault is it?"

"No. Nobody said it was, David. But it's typical of you, isn't it?" She paused for a moment to let up on him. "How are you getting on, otherwise?"

"What do you mean?"

"You and what's-her-name .... married yet?"

"Oh, Sandra you mean. We haven't set the date yet, it's the money you know.  We're doing okay though, except for the money." He leaned forward and lowered his voice a bit. "I wanted to talk to you about that, Milly."

Mildred said nothing. Whatever warmth that once existed between them had  turned bitter cold, she really didn't care how he was getting on. She wished he'd stop calling her 'Milly.' He hadn't once asked about Carrie going away to college or how they were making it on their own. He was fixated on money -- his money; it was a sure sign he didn't have any.

"You're doin' pretty good, right Milly? I'm glad to hear it, y'know -- really I am. I used to lay awake at night wonderin' how you were gettin' on. I wished ...." he spread his hands in an expansive gesture .... "I wished the settlement could'a been more -- and it would'a been more if I'da had more to give."

The thought of him lying awake at night -- lying next to Sandra -- sent chills down her spine. "We get by, Dave. But there's nothing left at the end of the month, if that's what you mean."

Dave brought his hands back down on the table. He leaned towards Mildred with a startled expression. "Milly, what do think I am! I'm shocked; do you think I'd sit here asking you for money?"

Mildred tossed off the last of her wine and looked at her watch. It occurred to her that it was a watch she had bought herself before their marriage.

"I have to go, David. There's a million things Carrie and I have to do before she leaves."

Dave took a few sugar packets from the table and fiddled with them. He shifted in his seat a bit, then put them in his pocket. "I hate to ask you, Milly -- but I'm a little short 'til the end of the week. Would you mind ...."

"Paying for the drinks?"

He smiled sickly and shrugged. "I feel like a heel."

"Do you? Got enough for carfare downtown?" She picked up the tab and read it, then handed Dave a twenty dollar bill. "Here, you pay her -- you've got to uphold your reputation in front of the bar you know."

He took the money and put it on the tray with the bill, then he waved at Daisy. "It's the payments, Milly -- the payments are killin' me. I know I gotta go on payin' for three more years. Carrie's gonna be twenty-one then right?"

Mildred sighed and pulled her coat check out of her purse. "Go on," she murmured.

"I was wondering if you'd consider a modification."

"What's that?" Mildred asked as she stood and waited for David to push her chair back to the table. He leaped up quickly, pushed in the chair and took the coat check from her.

"Here let me handle that," he said, struggling into his coat. She couldn't help noticing it was still wet and wrinkled -- how seedy he looked. There was a tear in the pocket of the coat and the cuffs were frayed. He walked behind her to the coat check window -- "Well, a modification is like .... er, takin' a second look at the settlement. Y'see if a man can't keep up the payments, the court can reduce them." He gave the check to the hat check girl. "What color is your coat, Milly?"

"Black. A black sable."

"Phyllis, the lady checked a black sable." He looked back at Mildred. "You're doin' all right, Milly. You still into .... what'ya call demographics?" He made an awkward attempt to slip his arm around her waist when he helped her on with her coat and she pulled away.

She didn't answer. An answer wasn't necessary. Anyone could see the difference between them -- although there was a great difference in physical appearance, there was an even greater disparity in their bearing. Mildred was a thoroughbred; no one, other than Dave, would think of calling her 'Milly,' just as no one would ever bother to call Dave "David." The need to succeed on her own after the divorce had made her confident and supremely independent. Dave, on the other hand, looked like someone who had just come in after a bad day at the track.

He darted around Mildred and opened the door for her. They stood in the street and Dave lit a cigarette, holding the match between his thumb and forefinger and cupping it with the palm of his hand. "You won't forget, will you Milly? About the modification I mean. Your lawyer can explain it better than I can." He hunched his shoulders and turned his collar up. "I could sure use a break, y'know .... the way things are goin." His eyes lit up for a moment. "Hey, I got an idea -- maybe we can share a cab downtown."

They stood almost toe to toe -- eye to eye, at the edge of the curb. She was a shade taller than he -- she couldn't remember being taller than him when they were married. She suddenly realized he was a stranger, someone she didn't want to be seen with. What she missed was what he used to be, not what he turned out to be -- a panhandler outside Hurley's Bar in the rain. He was dead, truly dead. Could this creep actually be Carrie's father? Yet looking at him standing there with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, she was amazed to discover she still cared for him -- and she hated herself for it.

"Do you know what Carrie and I went through, Dave? Do you know what it's like for a woman to be a father and a mother? How could you? You didn't have guts enough to be a father! Go earn yourself a living!" She reached in her purse and found a subway token. "Here," she said, "here's carfare -- I'm taking a cab."

Critique this work

Click on the book to leave a comment about this work

All Authors (hi-speed)    All Authors (dialup)    Children    Columnists    Contact    Drama    Fiction    Grammar    Guest Book    Home    Humour    Links    Narratives    Novels    Poems    Published Authors    Reviews    September 11    Short Stories    Teen Writings    Submission Guidelines

Be sure to have a look at our Discussion Forum today to see what's
happening on The World's Favourite Literary Website.