Originally Posted by JEANNE MARIE LASKAS
She had no idea, back then, that he was sick. She had no idea he was losing his mind. Something neurological, the doctors are now saying, some kind of sludge blocking pathways in his brain. Would it have made a difference if she knew? Of course it would have. But you can't think like that. And you can't give a shit about people whispering behind your back. You hear about Fred McNeill? Star linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings back in the '70s and '80s. Ended up going crazy, and his wife, Tia, couldn't handle it, so she walked out. It's not like that, not even close, but whatever. People can think what they think.
She's double-parked outside his apartment in the Mid-Wilshire section of L.A., idiots honking as they veer. Oh, forgodsakes. I'm in this world, too, people.
"Fred?" she says, calling him on her cell. "Are you coming down?" She has a sleepy, husky voice that announces her stance on just about everything these days: I'm done. Her face is round, still alive with curiosity, sturdy and pretty and framed by tight curls.
"Am I what?" Fred says.
"Are you coming down? I'm waiting."
"Fred, I'm out here waiting!"
"Oh, okay, I'll come down."
"Don't forget the suitcase," she says.
"Remember I need my suitcase back?"
He does not remember anything about a suitcase.
"Fred, I just told you ten minutes ago that
I am outside waiting for you and to bring me the suitcase," she says.
"It's too early for karaoke," he says.
"Coffee," she says. "I am taking you out for coffee. Now, come on."
"Coffee. That sounds good."
"Please hurry, Fred."
"So what I'm going to do is, I'm going to put my shoes on, and I'm going to get my briefcase, and I am going to get you the suitcase, and I am going to come downstairs, and we are going to get coffee."
"Why are you bringing your briefcase?"
"I need to go to the office."
"No, you don't, Fred."
"Can we stop by the office?"
"Just come downstairs."
Five minutes go by. More honking. More idiots. No Fred. Her next call goes to voice mail: "You've reached the law offices of Frederick Arnold McNeill. Please leave a brief message." She hangs up. She reaches into a bag of trail mix, pops a handful, and chews. She stares forward and shakes her head slowly in that way that speaks of tragedy, of comedy, and the insidious fine line.
There was a time when Fred was brilliant. He started law school during his last year with the Vikings, studying on the plane to and from games while the other guys slept. He graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, top of his class. After he retired from the Vikings in 1985, he got recruited by a huge firm and then another one, where he was made partner. Then one day in 1996 a certified letter came while Fred and Tia were on vacation with the kids. We voted you out, it said. Fred was 44. It was devastating. How Tia hated those people. Fred was calm, though. He went into private practice, started doing workers'-comp cases for athletes, including some injured Vikings—work that would later prove to be tragically ironic. But after two years, no money was coming in. "What is going on?" Tia asked. It's not like he wasn't trying. He worked all the time, gave it his all; you couldn't find a more honest, diligent man. But the family was going broke. Weird things started happening. Fred jumping out of bed in the middle of the night, panicked and ready to fight. "They're here!" he would shout, face hot with terror. "Fred, it's just me!" Tia would say. She would shake him until he snapped out of it. At the time you think he's just having a nightmare. You get used to things. You don't put it all together.
They have two sons, Gavin, now 23, and "Little Freddie," 26. Gavin shares the two-bedroom apartment with Fred, looks after him, cooks him pancakes in the morning. Freddie lives with Tia, about fifteen minutes away, both of them piled into her mother's house, a blessing, since it's paid for. The boys are good boys, trying to run a creative agency together, and they go to counseling to help deal with their dad, to help untangle all the craziness that was never understood.
Here now is Fred. Thank God. He knocks on the passenger window, flashes a wide, beautiful smile, does a little ta-dah! dance move. He's 58 years old, and he has a long, gentle face, a blocky brow, and sprouts of gray hair shooting this way and that. He's wearing a windbreaker, baggy jeans, sneakers. She thinks he looks terrible. He's carrying a white notepad, stained and smudged, and covered top to bottom with phone numbers. He forgot the suitcase.
"You need a haircut, Fred," Tia says. "You look like Bozo the Clown!"
"I don't want a haircut."
"All right, let's just go." She pulls out, and still, even now, listens as if there is going to be substance.
"I have to make some calls," Fred says, looking at the notepad. "One of the things you have to do is, people call you, you have to respond to them." He speaks softly, almost a purr. "You would do the same thing, Tia. Somebody called you, what would you do? Call them back. I take this, I put the number on a big sheet of paper, and I'm cool. I have to start now calling back, not just writing it down. That's next. And then when I call the person back, I have to respond to whatever it is they say. That's how it goes. You would do the same thing."