The Good Guy
This is an extract from Susan Beale’s novel, The Good Guy (John Murray), shortlisted for the 2016 Costa First Novel Award.
Ted, a car-tyre salesman in 1960s suburban New England, is a dreamer who craves admiration. His wife, Abigail, longs for a life of the mind. Single-girl Penny just wants to be loved. When a chance encounter brings Ted and Penny together, he becomes enamoured and begins inventing a whole new life with her at its centre. But when this fantasy collides with reality, the fallout threatens everything, and everyone, he holds dear.
The Good Guy is a deeply compelling debut about love, marriage and what happens when good intentions and self-deception are taken to extremes.
The Good Guy
The Copley Plaza Hotel Oak Bar was like the first-class lounge of an ocean liner, Ted thought, and then wondered whether he had it the wrong way around. Were ocean liners designed to look like luxury hotels? Whichever it was, he was delighted to be there, delighted to be sitting among the opulent carved wood ceiling tiles and wall panelling, cut-glass mirrors, plush red carpets and heavy drapes. Over in one corner, a tuxedo-clad quartet played a mix of jazz and swing beside a tiny dance floor – an added benefit, present but unobtrusive, to be taken or left, as desired, because in this world of Boston high society and big business, every whim was catered to. Ted relaxed in the ample cushion of the armchair as Ken tossed back his fourth, or possibly fifth, Scotch and regaled a table full of air stewardesses with tales of Jimmy Hoffa.
‘Nice guy, Jimmy. Taught me to eat veal scaloppini with a fork and spoon instead of a knife,’ Ken said, and the stewardesses, knockouts, every one, sat wide-eyed with their mouths agape.
‘Isn’t he intimidating?’ said a small bright-eyed one called Peanut.
‘He’s misunderstood,’ Ken said. ‘Sentimental, I tell you. The man cries at weddings.’
Entertaining as Ted found the Jimmy Hoffa stories, he preferred the ones Ken told about running low on gas while driving through Death Valley, or spotting UFOs at night on the Dakota plains. He was fairly certain they were all made up.
‘Only two rules about bar talk,’ Ken had said as they walked over from the restaurant. ‘Rule number one, don’t be boring.’
‘What’s rule number two?’ Ted asked.
Who indeed? Not Ted, certainly, or the stewardesses gathered round the ugly man the way Ted’s family used to gather around the radio to listen to The Shadow: ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!’
Ted could get used to evenings like these.
‘Pay attention, now,’ Ken said to him as they opened their menus and the waiter placed warm crusty rolls on to their bread plates with long silver tongs. ‘I’m going to show you how to order dinner on business.’
Cocktails and red wine from France, the most expensive steaks on the menu, baked potatoes, sides of buttered green beans and onion rings piled high in a basket. The T-bone that was set before Ted was the most marvellous piece of meat he had ever beheld. Ken lifted his martini and toasted to future business success together.
‘So do we have a deal?’ Ted asked, because he wasn’t sure and as Curtis said, ‘Clarity affords focus.’
Ken’s laugh was wide, expansive. He said, ‘Would I be here tonight if we didn’t?’
It was the only uncomfortable moment of the evening. Ted felt like an eight-year-old but the feeling soon passed. Tonight was a celebration. He was a winner: the victor laying claim to his just desserts, which tonight was the house specialty, Boston cream pie served with coffee poured from a silver pot.
‘Another cup?’ Ken asked. Ted checked his watch. It wasn’t even nine. He could offer to drive Ken home and still be back in Elm Grove before ten.
‘Sure, why not?’
They stayed on for another thirty minutes of collegial conversation before rising from the table with little grunts.
‘Can I drop you home?’ Ted asked.
‘Sure,’ Ken said. He leaned in close. His cheek and forehead were glossy from the exertion of eating. There was a mischievous look in his small, beady eyes. ‘But what’s the rush? What say we go find ourselves some pretty girls?’
Ted’s initial reaction was one of horror. He was sure that Ken, with that unfortunate underbite, was looking to grab hold of the coat tails of a handsomer man and Ted, who had been dating Abigail since seventh grade and had almost no experience talking to girls in bars, was going to disappoint. Another needless worry – like whether he would get the deal, or sweat in his suit (the restaurant was, of course, air-conditioned) – Ken was a pro. It didn’t matter that his face resembled that of a dog that chased parked cars; his stories captivated.
It had been a point of pride to Ted that in high school and college he had never joined friends on their occasional boondogging trips across state lines to enjoy the society of girls who were not their steadies. Now he wondered whether he had missed an opportunity to develop his professional skills. He’d like to be able to tell great stories. He’d like not to be boring.
Tonight might be the best night in his life, Ted thought, and immediately felt guilty because, of course, the best night of his life was the night Mindy had been born. So maybe tonight was the second best night of his life.
It depended on the definition of best. If it meant the single best moment, then there was no doubt that seeing Mindy’s tiny, swaddled form through the nursery window for the first time was it, but the plain fact of the matter was that the hours leading up to her safe arrival had been pure hell. The hospital was full of people crying over Kennedy. Rumours were flying – there was a conspiracy, someone had shot at Johnson’s car on the way to the airport, it was the opening salvo of the Third World War – the air was full of tension and anxiety. And then the doctor coming out to the waiting room to see him, frowning and exhaling as he said the word: ‘Complications.’
Twice he’d run to the toilet to throw up, that’s how worried he’d been. Tonight, in contrast, was an unbroken string of good news, a staircase to the heavens.
‘Do you work with the Teamsters, too?’ It was the little brunette sitting to his right, the one who looked a bit like Annette Funicello. Ted knew that he should say yes. It was part of the game: bar talk. He should invent a good story but, caught off guard and on the spot, he blurted out the unglamorous truth.
‘I sell tyres.’
As if to confirm the rules Ken had taught him, the girl lifted her hand to hide a yawn.
‘Sorry to bore you,’ he said.
‘Oh, gosh, no,’ she cried, ‘certainly not. I’m sure selling tyres is very interesting. Far more interesting than what I do, at least. I’m just tired, is all.’
Her expression was sincere, guileless.
‘Was it a long flight?’
Her cheeks flushed. ‘I’m not a stewardess,’ she replied. ‘My roommates are. I’m just tagging along, but none of these girls has to work tomorrow and I have to be at the office by nine.’
She pulled a cigarette from a slim enamelled case. Ted reached for his Zippo and lit it for her.
‘So I guess we’re the dullards in this crowd.’
‘I guess we are.’ She smiled. Yes, Annette Funicello, his favourite Mouseketeer.
Her name was Penny. She was a secretary at one of the larger insurance companies in Boston but she insisted that he did not want to hear about it. ‘It’s not worth talking about, honestly,’ she said. But she did things that were worth talking about – seeing The Nutcracker at the Boston Ballet, art exhibits and plays, a jazz club called Lennie’s and a Greek restaurant out on Route 1 where there was line dancing on Friday nights. Her life sounded so exciting. Why, he wondered, had he never thought to move into the city? It wasn’t as if he’d reflected on the idea and then disregarded it. The thought had never occurred to him, even before Mindy was born. Now, of course, it was too late. He looked over at the dance floor where a silver-haired gentleman in an expensive suit was partnering a much younger woman.
‘So you like to dance?’ he asked.
‘I love it,’ she said.
Ted enjoyed dancing, too, though lately he’d had few opportunities to do so, not since leaving college nearly three years before, in fact. It was funny how life changed. All through his teens he could have danced every week, if he’d wanted. Even in dinky little Wilsonville there were balls, mixers, parties, tea dances and friends’ weddings, but all that had stopped as soon as Mindy was born, or maybe before. He wasn’t sure.
‘Would you like to dance now?’
Her skin felt cool beneath his fingers. She smelled of honeysuckles, menthol cigarettes and something deeply feminine. She was petite, but their height difference wasn’t noticeable once they started to dance. She responded to his lead as if they had been partners for years.
‘You’re good,’ he said.
She looked up at him with that stars-in-the-eyes look Annette gave Frankie when they sang duets on the beach.
‘I was just about to say the same to you.’
In fact, Ted had won best dancer back in high school, something that was bound to sound comically pathetic to a cosmopolitan girl like her. Competition for the title hadn’t exactly been stiff – an ability to avoid treading on his partner’s feet had pretty much ensured victory.
‘Too bad the floor is small,’ he said.
‘I hear the one at the Ritz is bigger.’
‘That’s good to know.’
He stepped back and raised his left hand to lead her in a twirl; caught her, and slowly lowered her into a dip.
Ken insisted that they see the stewardesses home. All five of them piled into the back seat of the DeSoto.
‘Jeez, what kind of a shitbox is this?’ Ken cried as he fought with the dented passenger-side door. ‘Doesn’t Goodyear pay you a living wage?’
‘They pay me fine. This car has sentimental value,’ Ted replied. ‘It belonged to my late father.’
‘I don’t doubt it. Driving this? Poor guy must have been late all the time.’
‘She’s old but she’s reliable,’ Ted lied. The truth was that it was temperamental and drank motor oil like kids drank soda pop.
They dropped two of the stewardesses off at their hotel and then took the Sumner Tunnel over to East Boston where Penny and her two roommates lived.
‘Guy like you, a salesman, ought to put his money where his mouth is: sports car, sitting atop the finest four wheels that Goodyear makes. Am I right, ladies?’
The ladies all agreed and helpfully shouted out suggestions that began in the realm of reason.
And soon became fanciful.
Penny wasn’t saying anything.
‘What do you think, Penny?’ he asked.
‘What’s the cute little one with the grille in the front?’
‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘The convertible.’
He did not know East Boston and had to circle around the neighbourhood a few times because the streets all looked the same, some of them were one-way and Penny’s roommates couldn’t agree on the best route to take.
‘Good thing they don’t let them fly the planes,’ Ken said.
In daylight the difference in size and stature between a Charmer starter home and a deluxe model El Dorado was clear enough, but at half past two in the morning, shrouded in darkness, they looked surprisingly uniform. Uniform and abandoned. Ted drove along Elm Grove’s enclosed circuit without so much as a cat for company, the unsteady growl of the DeSoto’s engine an embarrassment. The car was indeed a shitbox. He hoped he didn’t wake anyone. Rounding the corner to home, he cut the motor and coasted the final yards into the driveway. He wasn’t the least bit tired. The heat of the day was gone; the night air was delicious, mild with just a hint of dampness. Peepers chirped, drowning out the hum of cars on the Mass Pike, beckoning him to come and savour the best part of the day. He strode down the driveway, breaking into a jog that became a sprint. He charged from one streetlamp to the next, arms and legs pumping, his open jacket flapping, the hard soles of his shoes clack-clackclacking on the pavement and when he reached the light he kept running, ignoring the rising tightness in his lungs, the growing heaviness in his legs, and the prodding reminders from his gut that it was busy digesting a large dinner. He powered on to the next light, lifting his arms as if breaking the tape at the Boston Marathon before doubling over, hands on his knees, mouth open, gulping in air, burping out gas and smiling. When he walked back toward his house he was strutting, marvelling at the night’s sublime beauty and this feeling of total satisfaction.
He’d always known it would be this way. He used to whisper to his kid brother Danny about it, across the darkness of the narrow bedroom they shared. At the time, his view of the world was unduly shaped by the Westerns he watched Saturday afternoons at the Elizabeth Theater. Success meant being a cowboy, driving herds across the west; a ski patroller, leading daring search and rescue missions in the Rockies, or a Rough Rider (unaware that they’d disbanded). Thinking back on his boyhood logic made him smile. Still, he saw the common thread: to be a standout, universally respected by one’s peers, a figure of inspiration. The belief that he was such a man endured despite middling to poor results throughout school. In sports, he did better, though he was by no means the best player in their small community. That made tonight’s victory all the sweeter. He was sure that Danny, wherever he was, was watching and applauding. He lifted his head toward the sky.
‘I did it, Danny,’ he whispered to the night. ‘I did it.’
He hadn’t expected it to happen so fast. The job at Goodyear was only ever meant to last a few months. He and Abigail had come down from New Hampshire to work for a summer during college. The pay was better in Massachusetts, and they could stay at his grandparents’ farmhouse in Lexington, where his mother and twelve-year-old twin brothers, Frank and Gene, had landed after Ted’s father died. He made his first sale less than two hours after stepping on to the floor, to the Goldbergs, a nice Jewish couple with a Ford Galaxie. One minute they were telling him about their toy poodles, the next they were signing the purchase order for five premium radials – wouldn’t entrust the safety of those prize-winning pooches to regular tyres, not even for the spare. Sales came so easy it didn’t even feel like work, something that, sadly, Abigail could not say about waitressing at a Howard Johnson’s on Route 9. She returned home with tender feet, looking a decade older. The greasy-sweet smell of fried clams and chocolate syrup clung to her hair and skin all summer long. When, in the second week of August, Curtis offered him the chance to stay on, full-time, he had not hesitated. Abigail was sore at first. They hadn’t talked about it, but he knew she had her heart set on him going to law school and eventually joining her father’s practice in Wilsonville. The idea of being married to a tyre salesman took a little getting used to. But Ted felt sure it was the right decision and every day since had brought fresh evidence to support his case. So what if he never became a lawyer? He was still the first member of his family to go to college, and the first to hold a white-collar job, even if the actual collars of the shirts worn by Goodyear salesmen were pale blue. Had they stayed in school the three of them would have been cramped up in a tiny apartment in married housing, with barely two pennies to rub together.
He couldn’t wait to tell Abigail about the deal. Mindful of how run down she’d been these past months, he wouldn’t wake her. Mindy could be counted on to perform that service and, with a little luck, he thought, as he gently pulled back the spring-loaded screen door, she’d get around to doing it before he went to sleep. Even if she didn’t, he’d get up and keep Abigail company while she prepared a bottle, changed diapers or did whatever it was she did when Mindy woke.
He poured himself a Scotch on the rocks and took it to the living room to drink in his favourite armchair, a thoroughly modern design with a simple metal frame, wooden arms and leather cushions of equal size set together at an obtuse angle. They would buy more modern furniture; they would fill the house with it.
And a second car. He swirled his glass and took a sip. Whisky and ice was the perfect drink, the ice such a pleasant contrast to the liquor’s warmth. Tomorrow he would ask Abigail if there was a particular model she preferred. They could go to dealerships; gather brochures. The sports car idea was a fantasy; a family car was what they needed: something sturdy, dependable, maybe a little dull. Ted was okay with that.
He was proud to be a good provider, the kind of man who bought a house in a place like Elm Grove. He almost hadn’t. His mother said it was rash to make such a big financial commitment so soon after starting at Goodyear. At the very least, she said, get the two-bedroom model, the Charmer, instead of the three-bedroom Enchantress. Play it safe. He could always trade up or build an addition later. But there were no Charmers on cul-de-sacs, which was where Ted wanted his house to be. He took a chance and stretched himself. A gamble, perhaps, but it paid off. Prices in the development were up. A Charmer had recently sold for something approaching what he’d paid for the Enchantress. Had he waited, all the gains he’d made in his income would have been eaten up by appreciation. Instead, they were going straight into his pocket while the value of his investment increased. He was not the type to toot his own horn, but he had to admit that there was some brilliance in his thinking. Had he been truly rash he would have bought an El Dorado or a Monterey and even though he could afford either of those now – yes, Paul Jenks, even the El Dorado – he could not, with any certainty, have predicted that his career would advance as fast as it had. The Enchantress had three bedrooms instead of four and only one and a half baths instead of two or three, but it more than met his family’s needs for the foreseeable future, and the open layout and modern conveniences gave it a large and luxurious feel.
From his chair he could see into the darkened kitchen, separated from the L-shaped parlour by a partition that doubled as a breakfast bar or, when entertaining, a buffet table. The kitchen had fitted cherry cupboards, Formica countertops and matching built-in appliances – oven, dishwasher and the Frigidaire icebox that had provided the ice cubes for the drink in his hands. In daytime, light poured in through a large picture window that faced the street and a sliding glass door in the back that opened on to the flagstone patio. Instead of old-fashioned steam radiators that clunked and banged and took up vital wall space, the house was warmed by water pipes built into the floor. Radiant heating was an ingenious invention, and more than made up for the lack of a basement. Who needed a cellar? It wasn’t as if they had coal to store.
He swallowed the last of the Scotch and rubbed his cheeks. It was past three and fatigue was finally catching up with him.