He said he was smart enough to be a Mensa member. She asked what that was. David said it was a group of people who took a test and were admitted to Mensa only if they tested as geniuses. Susanne just looked him, not entirely surpised and not entirely convinced David was right about that. Without knowing, and in light of what David did or didn't do for a living, Susanne went back to reading a novel she picked up on her weekly trips to the library.
Susanne and David had arguments now about those novels she read. She read everything from bestsellers to older classics, including children's books (she had no children) and non-fiction about fiction.
David insisted that reading any fiction was a waste of time.
"Why?" Susanne asked.
"Because fiction doesn't teach anyone anything," David said.
Susanne put her current book down and pinned him with a dark look.
"It doesn't teach anything?" she said, a rhetorical question she didn't wait to hear an answer to. "What bullshit! Fiction teaches more about people than most non-fiction books do. What fiction have you read?"
David told her he read none.
"Then why do you think you know about it?"
"Because it's made-up stories, stories like candy compared to non-fiction. Non-fiction is a meal in book form."
"More bullshit! You might learn how to memorize stuff or about math or something, but you'll never really learn more about what makes people do what they do."
"Of course I will," David said. "I read two newpapers a day and the weekly magazines. Those tell the truth about what makes people do what they do."
"No they don't," Susanne said, frustrated. "They tell an outcome of what people do, not why they do it, not really."
"Well," David said, "I know fiction can't say why people act like they do. Writers just make that junk up."
"Oh, fuck it, David."
Susanne left the room to cool off. She was ready to throw her book at David's smart-ass head. But violence wasn't her style and she certainly wasn't going to resort to it now. Besides, she'd lose her place in a really good book.
David worked as a smoke jumper. That meant when there were really big fires (the TV and newspaper kind) he was one of those folks who were airlifted to the midst of one and jumped out with his parachute (a combination 'chute and fireproof shelter) and fought a fire from the middle of it, tumbling down through smoke to dig a circular safety zone with his buddies and hopefully extinguish the intial causes of the fires.
Susanne actually learned more about his work from a fiction book than David ever told her.
David wasn't called to work that job much anymore. Not anymore at all, in fact. He and Susanne reached middle age together, married since college, and lived now in a rented condo. David never said much about it, but Susanne wondered about their age factor, and planned nebulous job opportunities for them both.
Susanne was the one who completed college, even if David was Mensa-smart. She got a degree as a teacher, but only taught for eight years before David insisted she give up working and keep their home a home.
That was when they had a home.
David said he had to drop out of college before he flunked out, one of the reasons Susanne married him. David was nothing if not honest, though he could honestly be a real asshole too. He said he was too busy experimenting with drugs to attend classes often enough. He'd hated drugs with a passion ever since.
Susanne could use a little hit of pot now and then, and sometimes she did but not around him. She read her books, worked on the strip of garden they were allowed, and enjoyed a book club she attended every Saturday at the library where the group was all women. In fact, that's why she enjoyed it very much. Those women were good company.
David had his fire-fighter buddies over for a barbecue on Sundays once a month. They drank a few beers and always, always told old fire stories, about the times they all had to use the fireproof 'chutes, about jumping into the smoke. They never brought their wives with them. It was an unspoken rule that wives were left at home, usually with the children. These men were ready and willing to boast about their children but they didn't much, knowing David had none.
Susanne could have kids, but David couldn't and didn't even want to adopt a child not his own. Susanne was sorry to leave her teaching job because she liked young people. But she accepted it for David and tried the role of housekeeping.
Being homeowners lasted long enough for David and Susanne to know they liked it, but not long enough to see them through middle age. The cars for each of them, the remodeling job, the mortgages...it all fell apart in time because David wasn't called to fires like he was before.
He still refused to allow Susanne to take the job she hadn't done for several years anyway, and now they rented the condo. It was nice enough and Susanne liked the easy maintenance of it, but David was unhappy and arguments about things like ficton versus non-ficton books were more and more frequent.
"I know!" Susanne said. "Let's go on to the Thai restaurant and have a good meal someone else cooks for once. I can even pay my own meal ticket. My sister sent me a nice..."
"Don't say one word about you damn sister and her damn charity checks," David said.
Susanne got up from her easy chair, went to his and put her arms around him.
"It was for my birthday, sweetie," she said. "I know you like the Thai place. My birthday was weeks ago, but I saved that tiny bit of money for a special occasion."
"What's the special occasion?"
"I want you to take that Mensa test. I think it'd be great. You have a memory like nobody I've ever met and I'm sure you'll get in the club. Okay?"
"Umm. I don't know. I don't feel like it now."
"After we eat we can think about it some more. Come on, David! Let's go."
"Alright, Suze. I'll go with you." David sighed.
The Thai place was excellent and so were David and Susanne's moods when they returned to the condo. Susanne put on some music they used to like when they were younger and asked David for a dance around the little living room.
"What is this?" David grinned. "What are you up to, little lady?"
"Bingo," was all Susanne said, and that was that for conversation.
The next morning, David read his first newspaper and Susanne finished another chapter in her book. They were content, but it didn't last long. When the mailman dropped the usual bills through the slot on the door, David's ears turned that red they did when he was upset. Susanne quietly left to tend the one tomato plant and few flowers in her garden.
What can an ex-smoke jumper do, one who thinks he's a genius and that most of the great novels in the world were useless? One who was in the twilight years of his life? Neither David nor Susanne were quite sure. The silliness about Mensa had been chit-chat since they met, and David knew he'd never take a test for anything besides blood pressure.
David turned on TV and settled in to watch his usual programs. He had the habit engrained in him to keep a beeper nearby in case there was a wildfire in some U.S. state or another, but it didn't beep for him now. Still... maybe. Probably not.
He barely concentrated on TV.
It kept showing a huge wildfire in Colorado that he knew he wouldn't help put out.
His pleasure from last night evaporated into a dark, dark mood.
"Look, David," Susanne said, holding a few ripe tomatoes in her hands. "Fresh, home-grown tomatoes! Want a sandwich with them? I do. They'll taste great! I have sliced chicken and lettuce and I'm hungry."
"Do what you want, Susanne. I'm not hungry."
"You will be."
"Yes, Susanne! Hah and bah! I'm a washed up old man. All I do is sit here and wait for something that'll never happen again. I'm too old to save anyone as a fire fighter anymore. I'm too old to learn anything else. I hate TV and all I do is watch it. Sometimes I get up at night and watch even more TV, and I hate it! I'm no genius. I couldn't even hang onto our real home. I brought you here, a loser's place. Dammit!"
"I don't mind it here, David. I like it. Really."
"You're just saying that. We're both of us getting old, and we have nothing to show for it but a rental unit where grownup children live. They drive me crazy whenever I wash the car or walk past that damn swimming pool. They think they have it so great being away from mommy and daddy, and this is just a shit place! I hate it here. We could even lose this!"
"Well, go ahead and hate it then. I'm making some sandwiches with tomatoes I grew myself. I'm going to read while I eat both of them if you don't join me in the kitchen, where, I might add, I'll eat off a beautiful table of sanded wood you made years ago. The most beautiful table I've ever seen."
"Go on then. Read your dumb book in there!"
"I will, David, thank you very much. I'll stay in there too. A table and book are both better company than you are!"
That moment, the beeper went off in three shrill tones.
David and Susanne froze and looked at each other, mouths half open.
Susanne said, "You'd better call in..." just as David headed for the phone.
He knew the number still. He still had his old gear, though his buddies said younger guys were getting better stuff now.
"David Lansing. Yessir. Yessir. Really? I do know. I'll be there in ten minutes."
He looked at his wife with a new light in his eyes.
"They want me to go to the jumper school and help teach new guys what to do! I can't believe it! Oh, Susanne..."
He swung her around and said, "Ah, I've got to get across town! There's another big fire in Colorado. They need me to give those new guys a little talk before they go and Johnston wants me to do that more now."
"He's paying you?"
"Of course!" David laughed. "I'm a fucking genius, and I know everything about smoke jumping! I've been to Colorado more times than I can count! Johnston said we'd talk about a regular class I'd teach after the pep talk for the kids. Haha! Ah, Suze! This fire is close to Boulder and they're desperate but, by god, they know who to call, don't they?"
"Yes they do," Susanne said. "Drive safely now. Here, don't forget to eat something."
She handed him a full, ripe tomato. David kissed her and the tomato.
They both knew his former job kept a lot alive, so many people and so much wildlife.
Susanne knew it was even more than that. It was like a fireproof cover finally descended again on the man she'd loved since college. It would keep him alive. It was as good as any fine fiction book.