It only took three beers for me to tell my wife I was in love with another man. It’s okay. This had happened before.
“Tobias Wolff. His prose, baby,” I said, head in my hands at the Bier Stein. “It’s so clean.”
“I know, Jeff.”
“So fucking clean.”
We were having this conversation (again) because I have a blood alcohol trigger of .04% which sets off: 1) irrelevant stories about ex-girlfriends, 2) the endless rehashing of arguments I didn’t — but very nearly — had that day, and 3) teary approbation of Truman Capote and Tobias Wolff.
My reptile brain has been conditioned toward item 3, which can be discussed at some length without forfeiting either additional beers or bed privileges. So on it went. At the Bier Stein. The Jackalope. The entire way home. Directed eventually to our nanny, frozen in the doorway, trying to leave.
“Bullet to the Brain,’ sure! Who hasn’t! But how about ‘Hunters in the Snow?’ How about ‘Nightingale?’ Read that little beauty, and when you’re done bawling your eyes out, give me a call.”
Our nanny did not convincingly commit to reading “Nightingale” before she left. I was lamenting this aloud, sitting in my easy chair with a half-finished pint when it struck me.
“Hey,” I said, popping into the bathroom. My wife was brushing her teeth. “Tobias Wolff is alive. He’s breathing. Not even far from here. I could drive down to Stanford in less than a day.”
“You have your crazy eyes on, baby,” she said, spitting in the sink.
I went into my bedroom and Googled the drive time from Eugene to Stanford. Just nine hours. Then I checked out Stanford’s faculty bio pages. Tobias Wolff had a page. His very own, publicly-viewable page. With office hours.
“Holy shit,” I said, rubbing my hands together. “Oh, holy shit.”
“Tobias Wolff has office hours!”
“So, look. There’s a phone number. And a certain time he’ll be there. By the phone.”
“That’s his job.”
“But – holy shit, you know?”
She fixed me with a look I’ve come to associate with the end of the conversation.
“I should call him now,” I said.
“Yeah?” she said. “Go ahead.”
“You should do it.” With the threat of a prank call, I had awoken in my wife a slumber-partying 7th grader. She advanced. “Call him. Do it. Call Tobias Wolff.”
“What if he answers?”
“It’s eleven thirty at night.”
“But what if?”
“Then you’ll have to talk to him.”
I nodded solemnly, playing the part of a man who would accept the consequences of his actions. This, all the while knowing I would let Tobias Wolff talk a few precious moments then hang up, power down my phone, and throw it in the creek. I would also, in the long run, consider this worth it.
I dialed nine numbers then hung up.
“Seriously?” she said.
I dialed his full number. Tobias Wolff’s number. She huddled by the receiver for five unnerving rings. Then, the click of an answering machine.
The canned voice began: Hello, you have reached – and then, – “TOBIAS WOLFF” – please record blah blah blah.
I hung up. I’d heard the man. “Tobias Wolff.” He had spoken his name with authority. Military background, evident. That voice. This was not a man to trifle with. For a moment, I considered all the guns in his stories. Probably one gun per 5 pages, now that I thought about it.
“So that’s it?” my wife asked.
I set down my phone. My hand was actually shaking. I wasn’t ready for this. Imagine if he had answered. Hell, imagine if he had recorded the entire message. I closed the faculty page. I cleared my cache, then closed my browser. As I was leaving my office, I heard my wife down the hall.
“Tobias, it’s okay. I love you, Tobias. I love you so much.”
I froze – a prickling on the back of my neck.
Then she started into a lullaby. I sighed. She was in the next room with Tobias, our two-year-old son.
Thank God. For a second there, things had almost gotten weird.