Photograph by Larry Sultan
Ten years before Joan Krebs left her , Roger, and moved back to Cincinnati, I spotted the two of them dining alone by the bricked-up fireplace in the Old Eagle Grill. She was a devoted daughter, her father a sportsman with well-bred dogs, who arrived once a year to peer at Roger and inspect the marriage. Roger always saluted his father-in-law’s departure with the words “Good riddance.” In those days, Joan stirred up our town with her air of dangerous glamour and the sense that her marriage to Roger couldn’t possibly last. There was nothing wrong with Roger, but talking to him was laborious. As the founder of the once famous Nomad Agency, he sold high-end recreational properties to members of his far-flung society, and he had taken on the language of his clients. After he described a drought-stricken, abandoned part of the state as a “tightly held neighborhood,” he came to be known as Tightly Held Krebs, or T.H. In the areas of Montana that were subject to his creative hyperbole, people bought god-awful properties, believing that they were an acquired taste. Renowned for his many closings, Roger was on the road a lot; this worked perfectly for Joan and me.
Joan made it clear, at the beginning of our affair, that this was not her first rodeo. She added, “I never do it to get anywhere.” That was all the justification we needed. I thought of Benjamin Franklin’s obscure dictum about “using venery,” and was reassured that our girl Joan was more ethical than that early American icon. I wouldn’t say I envied Roger, and I may even have enjoyed the limitations. I had all the advantages without the cares. The little I knew of their love life was a glancing mention of Roger’s vocalizations and importuning. Joan said she felt as if she were being regaled by him. I regret that I fell in love with her and, worse, never got over it.
When I stopped at their table at the Eagle, Roger rose to his feet, pressed his napkin to his chest, and gave me a hearty welcome. Hearty by Roger’s somewhat dainty standards, that is. I hugged Joan when she stood, running the tip of my forefinger up the small of her back and feeling her shiver. She rewarded me with a twinkle. The three of us sat, and they beamed at me with intense curiosity. There were several ways of viewing Roger; the nicest one credited him with enthusiasm and bonhomie, and this really was more helpful than, say, applying the standards used in one of Hemingway’s café scenes, where the queries were all about who was or wasn’t a phony. When Joan, Roger, and I sat down together, we were, strictly speaking, three phonies. There were a good many non-phonies scattered around the dining room. They looked rather dull.
“You’ve come at the right time to settle a gentle dispute,” Roger sang. “Joan says that I alone approve of the fellow in the subway who shot the muggers. Please take my side! Mugging should be risky, as risky as speeding or mountain climbing.”
“Four boys were shot,” Joan said, leaning on her elbows and seizing her head. I glanced her way, and she held my gaze, her imperturbable face breaking slowly into a smile. No chance Roger would note any of this midway through his mugging aria.
“Risk!” he went on. “Look at all the deaths on K2. When you set out to rob, beat, or knife people, you should share in the peril. I want muggers to know that it’s a dangerous sport. Every game has rules. My hat’s off to the stouthearted fellow who filled them with lead. He could have been stabbed or something. Knives! They had knives!”
Quite inadvertently, as my hand rested in my lap, my fingers touched Joan’s. I let them intertwine. Roger noticed after all. “A little wine?” he asked. “Some candles?” Good one, but even this didn’t stop him. He looked up in thought. “In school, we had to write an essay on one of Dante’s circles of Hell,” he said. “We could pick whichever circle we wanted. I picked the Sea of Excrement.” He smiled. “I’m a realist, you see.”
Joan and Roger once came to my parents’ house for a visit. My father can be formal with new people, and they seemed wildly animated. Dad was charming and cordial, but, when they left, he said, “I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. And I wouldn’t trust the wife farther than I could throw her.”