Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Chain of Fools: The Miller's Tale Retold

Mary Frazier Brennan

A lot of things can kill you. Unfortunately, humiliation isn’t one of them. Three years ago, good-lookin’ Sam Allison walked through the doors of my public relations firm to pitch an idea for one of his clients. Right off, I pegged him as a card-carrying member of that hard-to-resist breed: a smart Southern charmer. They’re a dime a dozen in Atlanta, so I’m usually impervious to smart-ass-white-boys, but something struck me about Sam. The fact that he was twenty years my junior did nothing to stop my swan dive into love-oblivion.

Yes, I know. It’s a story as old as dirt – older woman/man falls for younger man/woman and begins a life of public degradation. But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s as if you have a cosmic sack over your head. The big picture doesn’t exist, only a tiny myopic one. I should’ve known better – and did – but it just didn’t matter.

Within six months of meeting, Sam had asked me to marry him. I couldn’t find a reason to say no. I was crazy about the guy, and he seemed to feel the same about me, so we tied the knot in a small, tasteful ceremony. The transition from single to married life appeared to go smoothly for both of us. He moved into my house, and we settled into a regular routine.

For me, life couldn’t have been better. Bonnie Miller PR & Media was inundated with work, and Atlanta Magazine named us one of the city’s top twenty small businesses. It didn’t take long for Sam to become an integral part of a firm that thrives on his kind of intelligence, instinct, and charm. A perfect fit, everyone said. But don’t think I didn’t notice the sly smirks around the office and the club. “We’ll show ‘em,” I said to myself. Life was good.

In hindsight, I see that the first link in the chain of disaster was forged last spring when I got a call from a professor friend of mine from the University of Georgia. She had a smart, personable student anxious to get real-world experience before graduation. Was I willing to provide a little mentoring?

You bet! I jumped at the chance for a summer intern with a solid recommendation from someone I trusted. Even with Sam on-board, the firm had more work than it could handle.

It turned out that Jennifer Nichols was everything promised – savvy, talented, quick on the up-take – and I did what I could to expedite her move to Atlanta so that she could start as soon as she’d finished her exams. I even solved her apartment crisis by offering to let her stay in our basement suite. It was only for three months, and we had plenty of room. Yes, I know – what was I thinking, putting a pretty 21-year-old college student in Sam’s line of sight day in, day out? Chink! Chink! Start adding to the disaster-chain.

Jennifer moved in Memorial Day weekend. It didn’t take long for her to hook up with Abby Carter, another young woman in our office, and for Abby to start coming around the house. They’d hang out in our back garden after work, enjoying a beer and conversation. Though work and social obligations kept me from joining them most evenings, I do remember Sam spending a lot of time back-gardening. Now that I think about it, he seemed to come up with an awful lot of excuses for weaseling out of our social commitments at the time. Oh, miserable chink!

June and July were hectic months. Jennifer seemed especially well-suited to the stressful pace of a thriving PR firm. Everyone’s noses were to the grindstone, not just mine. Or maybe mine was more so, and I didn’t think to look up to see where the other noses were. Anyway, since I was spending time hand-holding a new bank client, I figured my husband and young employees were taking up the slack in the office. I had no idea they were taking up the slack at home, as well. Chink-a-chink-chink.

The first inkling I had that any sort of monkey business was going on came in late July. “Bonnie, you look like you could use a drink,” Jimbo Harris called to me from his patio as I schlepped from my car after a particularly grueling work day. “Gin and tonic?”

“Make it a double!” I ordered, falling onto a cushioned chaise.

We settled in with our drinks, catching up on neighborhood news. A retired circuit court judge, Jimbo prides himself as being a one-man neighborhood watch – watching, primarily, the goings-on around my place. He’s an old friend and I know he cares about me, so I’ve never minded his nosiness. But the story he relayed as we sipped our cocktails rattled me.

“Bonnie, I saw the strangest thing the other evening in your back garden,” he started. “I’m not one to pry – OK, I am – but some phenomena just need explaining, so maybe you can shed some light on it.” He cleared his throat, then continued. “How can I put this? I saw what appeared to be naked rump protruding from one of your pool-house windows and that girl from your office kissing the afore-mentioned rump. Don’t know who the ass belonged to – the girl seemed shocked and embarrassed, like she’d been expecting to kiss something else. She left in a hurry. Never saw who came out of the pool-house, though. Damn phone rang, so I missed that part of the show.”

From his look and tone, I could tell Jimbo thought the ass-in-question belonged to my Sam, but I couldn’t believe that. Still, whose could it have been? I’ll say one thing for old Jim, he’s not one to hallucinate – he saw what he saw. Was there a logical explanation? I promised myself to start paying a little more attention to what was happening at home.

Unfortunately, that attention wavered under a mountain of work, causing the chain of disaster to reach its tension limit one night toward the end of August. Bone-tired from two days in Birmingham with the bank client, I slipped through the back door as quietly as I could to avoid whoever might be in the house. I just wanted to slide into a hot bath and inhale lavender-scented bubbles for an hour. I tiptoed up to the bedroom, dumped my bag next to the bed, and was on my way to start the bath when I heard a commotion coming from the garden.

“You bitches!” I heard Sam yell. “So this is what’s been going on behind my back!”

I threw open the French doors and stepped out onto the bedroom balcony overlooking the garden. Jennifer, dressed only in a tee-shirt and thong, and Abby (fully-clothed, thankfully!) were standing with their arms around each other in a more-than-best-girlfriend embrace. Sam, wearing only a towel to cover his man-parts, was in an angry, hysterical state. Whatever was happening, I didn’t want anyone to know I was there – at least not yet – so I moved behind a planter that covered me from view. Ah, the perfect vantage point for watching three people put my heart through a grinder. Add a few more chinks and an ow!

“Sam Allison, you are Grade-A pond-scum,” growled Jennifer. “Stringing both of us along since June – little secret meetings behind the other’s back, making us both look like fools! But it backfired, Big Guy, didn’t it?”

In that moment it became clear to me that Sam had been doing God-knows-what with not only Jennifer, but with Abby as well. Chiiiiiiink! You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re dying? Well, every conversation, meeting, and excuse over the past three months blew through my head, and reality popped into focus. Heat rose from the pit of my stomach to the ends of my L’Oreal-colored auburn hair as I realized the biggest fool in the world was sitting on my balcony.

But I had some competition for the title. Recognizing that he, too, had just won an Olympic gold in stupidity, Sam was terror-alert-red with rage.

“And how long has this been going on, girls? When did you decide that it wasn’t me you were interested in, but each other? Huh? Does Bonnie know you’re a couple of lesbians?”

Jennifer came right back at him. “Oh, like Bonnie would care about the lesbian thing! She’d probably relish the coolness of it all!” True, I thought. Jennifer continued, “Here’s a better question. Does Bonnie know you’re Sleep-Around Sam?”

“No, Bonnie does not know he’s Sleep-Around Sam,” I wanted to yell, but since my heart was trying to punch its way out of my chest, I decided to keep quiet.

In the middle of everything, I became aware that my neighbors – Jimbo on one side and Walter and Louise Crawford on the other – were witnessing this fiasco from their upstairs windows. Not only did they have ringside seats for the love-triangle freak-fest in the garden, they had full view of the silly woman hiding behind the planter on my balcony. Beam me up, oh Great Goddess! I was a jellied mass of mortification.

“Remember a couple of weeks ago when you pulled the butt-kissin’ stunt?” asked Jennifer. “Abby and I decided that we enjoyed each other’s rears more than anything we’d had with you! I've packed my stuff and I'm moving in with Abby until I go back to school. Sure, I’ll get a lousy review over this, but you’ll lose a whole lot more. Enjoy being left out in the cold with your little towel!”

The two girls headed for their cars, leaving Sam a-steam in the evening breeze. It was time for me to stand up and accept the consequences of my naiveté and his unforgivable behavior. Let the neighbors watch. I had no pride left.

“Sam,” I called hoarsely from the balcony. “I think you need to find another place to stay tonight.” That was all I could manage.

Sam’s red rage drained to jaundiced shock . “Bonnie. How long have you been there?”

“Let’s see – starting around the ‘You bitches!’ part. I’ll give you ten minutes to dress and get out. We’ll work out a time for you to get the rest of your things later. Just go.” I mustered as much dignity as I could and marched to the bathroom for my hot bath. By the time I was thoroughly steamed – in every sense of the word – Sam Allison was gone, the disaster-chain broken for good.

I haven’t heard from him in almost six months. He’s probably charming more birds out of trees. Abby, smart girl, decided she’d be more comfortable working for another PR firm, and Jennifer’s finishing up her last semester at the university. She’ll be a treasure to someone with the time to keep an eye on her. As far as I know, she and Abby are still together.

And me? Well, I lived through everything – thanks to a few close friends, a good divorce lawyer, and a patient therapist. I never found out what actually happened the night of the ass-kissing incident. It’ll just have to be fodder for old-age speculation, though I suspect Jimbo knows more than he’s telling. Jimbo, by the way, has come a-courtin’ over the last couple of months. He saw me at my lowest point, so I figure the only way to go is up.

The chain-forging experience did teach me this: that the earth will not open up and swallow you whole in the middle of your mortification. You have to slog through it using whatever slippery lifelines are available – outrageous rationalizations, bald-faced lies, or when all else fails, a week in bed with a bottle of gin and sixteen pints of Chocolate Therapy ice cream. I suggest stocking up on Bombay and Ben & Jerry’s, because you never know.


Mary Brennan was born and raised in Chattanooga, lives in Atlanta, and writes wherever she damn well pleases. A former producer/writer for Turner Broadcasting, she now works in marketing for the architecture firm Perkins+Will. She is currently working on a novel based on the life of a remarkable Englishman she met in the 1970s.

© Mary Brennan

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012