It's a Comfortable Life
Gary Burton's life could be summed up in one word: comfortable. By the time he was in his late thirties, Gary had authored several popular historical biographies that netted him a generous income. He and his wife, Sandy, lived in a two-story brick farmhouse in Vermont where they enjoyed a successful marriage and led a contented, peaceful life.
When he reached the age of forty, however, Gary, like so many men before him, came face to face with his own mortality. He realized he was no longer young but middle-aged, no longer handsome but distinguished looking. One birthday seemed to make all the difference between dreaming of things to come and reminiscing about things that had been, of looking ahead and looking back and, most disturbing, of being happy and being merely comfortable.
It was while he was in this male menopausal frame of mind that he hired Kim Westcott as a research assistant to help him compile information for his book on the life of George Armstrong Custer. Kim was very young and very beautiful. She reminded Gary of the girls he'd known in high school and college: the pretty, popular girls who became cheerleaders and prom queens, those teen-aged goddesses who dated only members of the football team, class presidents and others in their social stratum and who wouldn't look twice at boys like Gary Burton. Kim became a symbol to Gary, in his mid-life crisis state of mind, of all he had missed out on when he settled for being comfortable. While it was true that Sandy Burton had always been the perfect wife--loving, supportive and faithful--Gary couldn't help becoming deeply infatuated with his eighteen-year-old assistant.
Kim and Sandy had nothing in common physically, mentally or emotionally. They were so different, that one seemed to be the antithesis of the other. Sandy, dark-haired and petite, was a shy, quiet woman who enjoyed cooking, reading and the peace and quiet of rural New England. Kim, on the other hand, was a statuesque blonde with a vivacious, outgoing personality. The only common denominator between the two women was Gary: both were in love with him. Gary, in turn, loved both women, but in different ways. His love for Sandy was warm, protective and, of course, comfortable. But his love for Kim, despite the difference in their ages (or maybe because of it) was wildly passionate and utterly irresistible. When finally confronted with having to make a choice between the two, a guilt-ridden Gary said goodbye to his wife of twenty years and moved in with Kim Westcott.
The Burtons' divorce was an amicable one. Sandy, who had always been a sensible woman, did not contest it. No doubt, she saw the futility of trying to hold on to a husband who was in love with another woman. Sandy's calm acceptance of the dissolution of their marriage made Gary feel guiltier than ever, and in an effort to ease his conscience, he made sure that Sandy received a very generous divorce settlement that included the house in Vermont.
This uneven division of property didn't upset Kim much. As far as she was concerned, Sandy could have the old mausoleum of a house; she'd had enough of it and Vermont both. She didn't even mind that Sandy had gotten so much of the Burtons' savings, at Gary's insistence. After all, Kim reasoned, her husband was a successful author. There'd be plenty more money where that came from.
* * *
Kim and Gary were married the day after his divorce became final. At Kim's suggestion, the newlyweds moved into an exclusive high-rise apartment in Manhattan.
"You're a brilliant author," Kim said, shamelessly manipulating her new husband. "You can write anywhere. Why not in New York?"
Although many marriages between couples of so great an age difference eventually flounder and fail, Kim and Gary's union actually flourished. Kim was everything the writer had ever wanted in a woman, and for the first time in his life, he was not merely happy, content or comfortable; he was ecstatic.
Shortly after Kim and Gary moved to New York, Sandy was killed in a car accident. Gary's grief over the death of his first wife was intensified by the guilt that still nagged at him. Gradually, however, the pain of losing Sandy was overshadowed by his happiness with Kim. This was only natural. Sandy represented the past; Kim was the present and the future.
Tragically, though, that future was to be short-lived, for less than two years after Sandy's death, Kim became the victim of a senseless drive-by shooting. With the death of both the women he loved, Gary was inconsolable. Kim had been there to help him through his grief over losing Sandy, but no one could ease his pain of losing Kim.
Day after day, Gary sat alone in their lavish apartment, which without Kim's presence seemed as cold and impersonal as a hospital waiting room. Numbed with grief, he found it difficult to concentrate on anything, least of all his writing. His latest manuscript sat unfinished on his desk. At least for the time being, his creative force was as dead as Kim and Sandy.
Worst of all, he soon found it difficult to conjure up Kim's face in his mind. They had lived in wedded bliss for only two and a half years, and now his memories of her were fading. Perhaps that was nature's way of helping to dull the pain of loss.
It was while Gary's spirits were at their lowest, that he received a phone call from Barney Kaufman, his accountant. Unless immediate steps were taken, Barney informed him, Gary faced bankruptcy. While it was true he made a good income from his writing, since marrying Kim he had published only one book. His new manuscript was six months past due. Also, living in New York came at a much higher cost than living in Vermont. What Barney did not say was that Gary's recently deceased young wife had managed to spend more money than her husband made.
While writing had always been a labor of love to Gary, it had suddenly become a tedious necessity. For two weeks he sat at his computer trying to complete his biography of Amelia Earhart, but as he read over what he'd written, he realized he'd been describing not the missing aviatrix but rather his beloved Kim. A curious feeling came over him; writing about Kim seemed to comfort him. In some small way it seemed to bring her back to him. On impulse, Gary closed the file on Amelia Earhart and opened a new one.
For the first time since Kim died, Gary had no difficulty concentrating on his writing. Words poured out of him like floodwaters through a broken dam. He painstakingly described every minute he had spent with her, starting with the first moment he saw her: the day she showed up at his home to apply for the job as his research assistant.
Like a man possessed, he typed long into the night, until finally, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, he fell into a deep slumber at his desk. It was the same the next day and the next and the next. Gary worked throughout the day and well into the night, typing frantically as though exorcising a demon. Finally, when he wrote about the night of her death, his tears came as steadily as his words. Rather than serving as a catharsis and easing his pain, however, the account seemed to intensify it.
"Wait!" he cried suddenly. "This is my world. I'm in control here."
Defiantly, he deleted the last page and a half of text. As a historian, Gary had often longed to rewrite history, and that's just what he planned on doing. At least in the memory of his Dell's hard drive, Kim would still be alive. Gary could feel a weight being lifted from his soul as he cleverly rewrote the tragic events, making sure that the unknown gunman missed his mark. He described in meticulous detail how Kim, badly shaken but very much alive and well, returned home to her husband after the shooting.
Eventually, exhaustion once again overcame him. He looked at the time on the bottom of the computer screen and noticed that it was 3:00 a.m. He closed the file and shut down his computer.
"Gary! Gary! You'll never guess what happened!" Kim burst through the door, flushed and overwrought. "I was waiting for a cab downtown when this guy drove by and shot out one of the windows of the building behind me. Do you realize that if that madman had shot a few inches to the left, he would have hit me?"
Deep in shock, Gary couldn't reply. He could only stare in awe at this vision of his dead wife.
"What's wrong, honey?" she asked, regaining some of her composure. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Kim threw her arms around her husband, hugging him tightly. It was warm, living flesh that embraced Gary, not a ghostly mass of ectoplasm.
The enormity of what he'd done finally struck Gary. Impossible though it seemed, he had somehow managed to bring his lost love back to life. According to the Christian faith, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. But in this instance, the Lord had taken Kim away, and he, Gary Burton, had taken her back.
After Gary had gotten over the initial delight and shock of Kim's return, he began to wonder just how he would explain this miracle to the world. Who was going to believe that he had resurrected his wife using only a Dell computer and Microsoft Word? Fortunately, Gary was spared the need to explain. He soon discovered that when he'd rewritten the events leading to Kim's death, he had actually turned back the hands of time. Now he could relive the past three months, but this time, thank God, there would be no crushing grief to contend with.
* * *
Even in the presence of so great a miracle as the return of the dead, practical matters couldn't be ignored. Gary was almost broke. With grief no longer contributing to his writer's block, he could finish his book in a little over a month, but it still had to be edited and then published. It would be some time before he'd see any royalty checks.
"We're going to have to cut back on our spending," Gary warned Kim. "For one thing, the rent on this place is exorbitant. So, I've decided the most logical solution is to move back to Vermont."
Although Sandy had gotten the house in the divorce settlement, after her death ownership reverted to Gary, who had still been listed as the beneficiary of Sandy's will.
"But I don't want to live in Vermont," Kim complained. "I hate living in the country. Why don't we just sell that place? Then we'll have enough money to stay here in New York until your book is out."
"Property in that part of Vermont doesn't move fast. It could take months to find a buyer. Besides, even if we were to sell the house tomorrow, by the time we closed on the sale and got our money, we'd be bankrupt."
It was in mid-October, a time when New England is at its most beautiful, that Gary returned to the farmhouse. He hadn't realized just how much he missed the old place until he and Kim moved back. It was Kim who had liked New York; he had always felt more at home in Vermont.
The interior of the house looked as it had the last time he'd seen it, just as Sandy had decorated it: warm, cozy and comfortable. In his den, at his antique cherry desk, writing came easily to him. In no time at all, he not only finished the book on Amelia Earhart, but he also completed an outline for a new book on the life of Robespierre, the French revolutionist who lost his head on the guillotine.
* * *
October passed without incident, and it was almost Thanksgiving and the start of the Christmas season, the time of year Gary loved most. The farmhouse would be decorated with twinkling lights, pine boughs and silver and gold garland. Cookies would be baking in the oven, and there would be homemade eggnog in the old cut-glass punchbowl on the dining room table. Carols would be playing on the stereo as Kim decorated the tree.
Kim? What was he thinking? Those were memories of his first wife, Sandy. Christmas time with Kim meant countless parties, rooms full of young people with whom he had nothing in common, loud music he neither liked nor understood and pointless conversations that didn't interest him in the least. He had, in fact, hated everything about those parties, especially the patronizing way Kim's young friends treated her older husband.
Gary had been grief-stricken after Kim's death and had dwelt only on the good times they shared. He had somehow forgotten the more unhappy moments in their marriage. But now, those unpleasant memories were beginning to surface.
"When do you think we can move back to New York?" Kim asked one evening at dinner.
"We're not going back. We're staying in Vermont."
"But I hate it here! If it's a question of money, we can always get a smaller apartment in the city."
"No, Kim. This is my home, and I'm not moving again."
"This godforsaken place is fine for you. You've got your writing to keep you busy, but what about me? I'm bored out of my mind here!"
"Well, if you're looking for something to do, why don't you help me with the research for my new book?" Gary suggested.
"I didn't marry you to become a secretary," she said and stormed out of the room.
* * *
From that night on, Kim began spending more and more time away from the farmhouse, often not coming home until the early hours of the morning.
It's happening again. That thought had come unbidden like an elusive memory Gary couldn't quite grasp. What was happening again? he wondered.
Surprisingly, Kim's disappearances and strange behavior didn't upset him. Theirs was not the happily-ever-after marriage it had been before Kim's death and miraculous resurrection. Things between husband and wife were not the same. Or were they? asked an inner voice that had begun to plague Gary.
Thanksgiving arrived, but it bore little resemblance to the happy holidays he had once enjoyed with Sandy. Kim hated cooking, so it was up to Gary to prepare the small turkey breast and traditional side dishes he enjoyed so much. It was only after the table was set and the turkey carved, that Gary realized Kim wasn't home. With his wife God only knew where, he sat down to a solitary holiday dinner, but he didn't feel lonely. While he ate his roast turkey, sausage stuffing, candied yams and cranberry sauce, Gary had his memories of Sandy to keep him company. Afterward, he sat in front of the fireplace, eating his pumpkin pie and watching Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.
Later, as he was drying the dishes--long after the people of Bedford Falls came to the aid of George Bailey and Clarence Oddbody earned his wings--Gary heard Kim's car pull into the driveway. She made no attempt to apologize for her absence. On the contrary, she didn't speak to her husband at all. Instead, she went straight up to the bedroom. Curious to learn where she'd been all day, Gary followed her upstairs. Kim, still wearing her coat, started to pull clothes out of the drawers and closet and stuff them into the open suitcases on the bed.
"Where are you going?" he asked her indifferently.
"Back to New York."
"How can you afford to live in New York? You don't have any money. You don't even have a job."
"I'll be staying with a friend," she replied, smiling unpleasantly. "You know, Gary, I almost left you once before, back when we were still living in New York. I have no idea why I changed my mind and stayed with you, but you can bet it won't happen again."
At last, the door to that elusive memory opened. Gary remembered the day he had learned of Kim's infidelity, her long series of one-night stands and short-lived affairs, both before and after they became man and wife. When he confronted her with the truth, there was a terrible argument. Kim heartlessly boasted that she was tired of being married to an old man and that she planned on leaving him for a much younger one. Gary seethed with anger and jealousy. Later that night he trailed her to her lover's apartment. He stood outside in the shadows for hours waiting for her to come out. When she did, she was alone. Gary looked at his watch and saw that it was already past three. While Kim stood on that dark and deserted street waiting for a taxi, Gary emerged from the shadows and shot her.
No wonder he blocked it out of his memory. It was his guilt that made him remember things not as they actually were, but as he had so often wished them to be. The sad truth was, however, that his life with Kim had been far from blissful; it had been a living hell! And now once again she was leaving him. Only this time, Gary didn't care. He simply walked out of the bedroom and back downstairs, making no attempt whatsoever to stop her.
* * *
Back in his study, Gary turned on the Dell, clicked on the Word icon and opened a new file. This time he did not write like a man possessed; he remained calm, controlled and disciplined. Page after page, hour after hour, day after day he continued to write. Finally, he was done. He saved the file, shut down the computer and waited.
"Gary?" his wife called, coming up the stairs.
Gary Burton sighed with relief, and a smile lit up his face. He'd done it again!
"Gary," she repeated as she came through the door. "There's a young woman here to see you about the job. Do you want me to send her up?"
Gary crossed the room and took her in his arms. "No. I've got a better idea. I think I'll put off starting the new book for a month or so. Feel like going on a second honeymoon?"
His wife beamed up at him. "Oh, honey, that's the best idea I've heard in a long time."
As Sandy went downstairs to send Kim Westcott away, Gary sat back down at his desk, stared at the Dell and made a solemn vow: this time there would be no other woman, no divorce and no car accident. He and Sandy--his wife, his best friend and his one true love--would share a long, happy and comfortable life together.
In writing a story about comfort, I consulted an expert: Salem.