On Calton Hill
By: Dennis Vannatta
When Rotary International held its annual meeting in Edinburgh, several members of the Rockaway Park chapter attended, all but Jeffrey Ward and Devin O’Day staying in one of the three big hotels virtually taken over for the event by the Rotarians. Jeffrey, Devin, and their wives, Kate and Brittany, stayed at the much smaller Garden House on Royal Terrace. The other Rotarians assumed the two had done their research and gotten a good deal because both—Jeffrey, a tax attorney, and Devin, a rising star in commercial real estate—were sharp young men with an eye for the dollar. There was some surprise, though, that they’d apparently together decided to stay at the same place. True, they did share much in common, both having attended St. Francis de Sales grammar school in Belle Harbor and then Xaverian High only a year apart, both active in the K of C and warriors in the eternal crusade to free the Rockaways from the tyranny of bridge tolls. The surprise was occasioned by the other feature they shared in common: both had been married to Rachel Armentrout.
No one could have been more surprised to find Jeffrey and Devin in the same hotel than Jeffrey and Devin. Yes, they were courteous to one another when they crossed paths in the community and might even have seemed cordial to a casual observer, but in fact they never exchanged a word if they didn’t have to. Why on earth would they? Jeffrey had thought that he and Rachel were happily married until she left him for Devin. Had the two moved to South America so that Jeffrey would never had had to see them again, he might have borne it, but they were right there in Rockaway under his nose—Devin with his wife, his Rachel—and whenever Jeffrey thought of them his guts churned.
How great was his joy, then, when, three years later, he learned that Rachel had left Devin for Carl Armentrout of all people, Carl twenty years older with the beer belly, lazy eye, and those awful used-car commercials on TV. Jeffrey rushed right over to Devin’s real estate office, stuck his head in the door, and sang out, “Goody goody!” from an old song about betrayal and revenge, but he couldn’t remember how the rest of it went. Devin had been expecting to hear something from Jeffrey and was prepared to laugh wryly because he had to admit that Jeffrey had reason to gloat, but when it came to the moment, he could only nod and grimace and mutter, “Yeah yeah.” And Jeffrey went out the door whistling off-key.
They all wound up at the Garden House through the machinations of their wives. Kate and Brittany became acquainted through the Rotary Anns, and while they never had the opportunity to become truly close because of their husbands’ estrangement, they thought in a different life they might have been. Why not have some fun together in Edinburgh while their husbands were off doing their thing? On to hotels.com, where the Garden House was described as “a boutique hotel,” and at reasonable rates.
On their first morning in Edinburgh, after seeing their husbands off to the convention—separately; they didn’t think Jeffrey and Devin had discovered each other’s presence at the hotel yet—Kate and Brittany met for breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
“Now I know what ‘boutique hotel’ means,” Kate said. “No TV, towels like sandpaper, and Luke-warm water.”
“And a toilet-paper holder that falls off the wall,” Brittany said.
“I’m going to described it as possessing old world charm to our friends back home.”
“Emphasis on ‘old.’”
They did enjoy their traditional English breakfast, though, and enjoyed ambling along winding streets among gray stone buildings still stained with soot from, they liked to think, the days of Queen Victoria. Best of all was the hop-on, hop-off bus tours they took, two of them, one in the morning mostly in the Old Town and another in the afternoon in the environs.
On the walk back to the hotel after the second tour, they stopped off in a little Italian café, ordered a glass of white wine apiece, and finally got around to addressing what had been on their minds all day: their husbands.
“So, how are we going to bring these two morons together?” Kate said.
Brittany, gazing out the window, took a slow sip of wine.
“Do you think she’s here?” she asked.
“Think who’s here?”
Brittany rolled her eyes. “Come on,” she said.
“Oh. You mean Rachel Armentrout.”
“Of course I mean Rachel Armentrout. Why else do you think we’re here?”
“I thought we were dumping our kids with their grandparents so we could have some quality time with our husbands.”
“Well, then, why do you think our husbands are here?”
“You mean you think they came hoping Rachel would be here?”
“Let me ask you a question. Jeffrey has been in Rotary what, seven or eight years? Has he ever gone to a Rotary International meeting before?”
“Well, neither has Devin. And Carl Armentrout joined Rotary just this year. Do the math.”
Now it was Kate who gazed out the window. It had been a raw day, blustery and overcast, but now the clouds were parting and the sun was beaming down through islands of blue sky.
It’s turning into a lovely day, Kate had intended to say, but what she actually said was, “The bastards.”
Jeffrey and Devin didn’t know that they had come hoping to see Rachel, not at first.
Devin didn’t realize it until after the welcoming address at the breakfast when he spotted Jeffrey and instead of continuing to stare at him found his eyes shifting around this way and that, searching the big hall for that pot-bellied ass, Carl Armentrout. Rachel’s husband.
It took Jeffrey a bit longer because as the original wronged husband, his anger still burned hot, and after spotting Devin he couldn’t take his eyes off him. Then, after the welcoming session was breaking up, he happened to run into Big John Kimball, past president of the Rockaway Park chapter. Big John was disappointed in the chapter’s turnout. He rattled off five names, including Jeffrey’s, Devin’s and his own. “That’s it,” he said. “Five.”
“So Carl Armentrout didn’t come?” Jeffrey heard himself asking.
“Armentrout? You’re right. I did hear that Carl was supposed to come. I think he’ll be a good member for us. I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“I will, too. So, where do the wives seem to be hanging out?” he said, trying to sound casual.
“Wives? Who can keep track of wives?” he said.
Jeffrey smiled wryly.
They went to meetings in the morning, then the luncheon, then more meetings in the afternoon without seeing each other again.
By mid-afternoon, Devin had had enough. He took a taxi back to the Garden House. Just as he was getting out, here comes Jeffrey walking up the street.
“So, you bailed out, too,” Devin said.
Jeffrey nodded and began fumbling with his key at the door. The Garden House was more like a B&B than a modern hotel, the key to the guest room also operating the front door.
“I had no idea you were going to be staying here, too,” Devin said. Jeffrey kept fumbling at the lock. “Our wives’ doing, obviously. You get the idea they’re conspiring to get us together?”
Jeffrey finally got the door open. He turned to Devin and said, “Could be. You never know what your wife will conspire to do behind your back.”
“Yeah, goddamn right, ouch.”
“Look, we can at least try to be civil.”
The next morning, after a late breakfast, Kate and Brittany, city map in hand, found their way to Holyrood Palace. They took the audio tour and found it very interesting but were disappointed they didn’t get to see the quarters where the royal family stayed when they were in Edinburgh.
Afterwards they walked up The Royal Mile and browsed for souvenirs in shops almost as tacky as the ones on Coney Island. Then on a lark they went to the Royal College of Surgeons museum. The exhibits were fascinating and ghastly.
Kate stopped before a photograph of a man with a tumor on his neck big as a second head. He was smiling.
“How could he smile? How could he live like that and smile?”
Brittany shook her head in wonder.
They were moving on to the next display case when Kate grabbed Brittany’s arm hard enough she almost cried out and pointed down the corridor.
It took Brittany a moment to understand what Kate was pointing at. By then the woman was almost out of sight around the corner, but surely it was her with her long glossy-black hair and those legs, damn those legs. That Delilah, that Jezebel, that Circe. That bitch Rachel Armentrout.
Jeffrey and Devin went their separate ways to the convention the next morning, quite happy to avoid each other. As Jeffrey was coming out of the last meeting before the luncheon, though, there was Devin in the hallway waiting for him.
“I just got a call from Brittany,” Devin said. “We’ve been instructed by our wives to come back to the hotel and take them to lunch. Then we’re supposed to do tourist stuff with them.”
“How’d you get a call? My cell phone doesn’t work here.”
“All you had to do was contact your service provider and pay a few bucks extra, cheap bastard.”
He intended this last to be facetious, but Jeffrey bristled. As he was just about to say something, though, he saw Carl Armentrout waddling off down the hall. Devin turned to see what had caught Jeffrey’s attention.
“So Armentrout came after all,’ he said.
Jeffrey didn’t like that ‘after all’ but couldn’t put his finger on just why.
“Well, I guess we ought to be heading back to the hotel. Might as well split a taxi, hadn’t we?” Devin said.
“Right. I’ll pay. After all the cash you laid out to get cell phone service, I suppose it’s the least I can do.”
“OK. That’ll make us even.”
“Not by a hell of a long shot.”
They met their wives back at the hotel and then took a cab down to the Parliament building and walked up The Royal Mile looking for a likely café for lunch. They found one on South Bridge.
Kate and Brittany ordered salads and Devin a cheeseburger and fries. Jeffrey said he was damned if he was going to leave Edinburgh without eating at least one genuine Scottish dish and asked the waitress about the haggis but at the last second backed out and ordered steak pie. “That’s Scottish, too.” When it came, he took one bite and pronounced it on a par with frozen pot pies, which he’d lived off of in his undergrad days.
After a few comments about the food, they ate in silence. Finally, Kate finished her salad and took out her Fodor’s city guide.
“I think we should try Edinburgh Castle. That’s a nice manly place. You fellows should like that.”
“Yeah, you’re real men, aren’t you?” Brittany said. Devin recoiled and gave her a puzzled, almost pained look.
Jeffrey thrust his chest out and proclaimed, “I’ll have you know I’ve got two kids that prove I’m a real man,” expecting at least a smile or two, but Kate snapped, “Oh, just hurry up and finish that wonderful steak pie.”
“I never said it was wonderful. I said it’s not any better than a two-bit frozen pot pie.”
“Well, you’re sure lapping it up.”
They left the pub and walked back up to High street and then on to the castle.
Devin tried to pay for his tickets with his American Express card, but they wouldn’t take it, so he used his MasterCard.
“Huh, won’t take American Express,” he said. “That’s unAmerican.”
Kate laughed. Brittany and Jeffrey rolled their eyes.
Inside the castle, Kate said she wanted to see the crown jewels. They found the entrance to the crown room, but there was a long line stretching outside the door.
“Well, look, we saw the crown jewels in The Tower of London. These are bound to be crap compared to them anyway,” Jeffrey said.
“What do you know about jewels? I want to see them,” Kate said, looking to Brittany for support.
Brittany hesitated. “Well, if you really want to . . .”
“I’ll go with Kate if you don’t want to go,” Devin said.
“I knew we could count on good ol’ Devin,” Brittany said.
“Come on, Brittany, we’ll go see something really interesting, like . . .”—Jeffrey glanced at the castle guide they’d been given at the entrance—“ . . . like the Prisoner of War Exhibition. Hot stuff!”
Kate and Devin took their place at the end of the line outside the crown room. Brittany and Jeffrey disappeared down a flight of stairs into a stone structure beneath the castle walls.
The line to the crown jewels moved faster than they’d expected. Soon they were inside, ooing and ahing over the jewels. It became a sort of game. “Oooo!” Kate would croon at each new piece. “Aaah!” Devin would respond. And they’d laugh.
The crowd was densest around the Stone of Destiny.
“Stolen by the English and not returned until 1996,” a man said, turning and reading from his guide. When he realized he was reading to Kate, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were my wife.”
“I’ll have you know she’s my wife, sir,” Devin said, putting his arm around Kate’s shoulders and pulling her away. They giggled like a couple of schoolkids.
They drew back from the Stone to the rear of the crowd. Devin still had his arm around Kate’s shoulders. She put her hand up under his windbreaker, rubbed the small of his back for a moment, then let her hand drift down over his rear. She inserted her fingertips between his legs until she touched his scrotum.
Devin looked at her solemnly. “Do you think this is a good idea?” he asked.
“I’m not sure thinking has anything to do with it,” she said.
“Hey, I didn’t know prisoners had it so easy. Hammocks!” Jeffrey said.
The room in the Prisoner of War Exhibition was dark and chilly. Rows of hammocks hung from the ceiling.
“Do you like hammocks, too?” Brittany said.
“I love hammocks. I keep asking for one for my birthday, but Kate hasn’t come through yet.”
“We were at a resort on Hilton Head where they had double-hammocks. We never could find one unoccupied. Probably just as well. Devin never would have gotten in one with me—afraid of looking ridiculous.”
“Yes. Didn’t you know? He’s very timid. Maybe not in the business world, but in personal relationships. I think that’s why he fell for Rachel Armentrout so hard. She swooped down and snatched him up and all he had to do was lie back and enjoy it.”
Jeffrey looked away.
“Sorry, Jeffrey. For a moment I forgot that Devin wasn’t the only one that Rachel got her claws into.
“That’s all right. Don’t worry about it.”
“What does that woman have, anyway?”
“Nothing that you don’t have.”
There between the hammocks, he kissed her and she kissed him back, but when he ran his hand up under her sweater and cupped her breast, she pushed him away.
“Stop it. I’m not Rachel, you know.”
The four came together again in front of St. Margaret’s Chapel.
“Well . . .” one of them said.
Kate bent her head over her Fodor’s. Suddenly she burst into tears.
“I want to see Grayfriars Bobby. I want to see Bobby,” she sobbed.
Jeffrey looked at Devin for an explanation, but it was Brittany who said, “Grayfriars Bobby is a dog, a very faithful dog. There’s a statue of it somewhere near here. We saw it on our hop-on, hop-off tour yesterday.”
“OK, OK, we’ll all go find this dog,” Jeffrey said. He put his hand on Kate’s arm, but she jerked it away.
“Stay away from me.”
He backed up as if she’d pulled a knife on him.
“Look, let’s all go,” Devin said, but Kate almost shrieked, “No!”
“I’ll take her, I’ll take her. I know it’s not far,” Brittany said. She put her arm around Kate’s shoulders, and this seemed to calm her a bit.
“Ok, well, OK, I’ll guess we’ll see you back at the hotel,” Jeffrey said, shrugging helplessly.
He and Devin hesitated and then, leaving Kate and Brittany studying the pullout map of the city, they walked down the slope away from the chapel.
As Devin paid the taxi driver, Jeffrey hesitated before the door of the hotel, then turned and began to walk down the sidewalk. Devin followed. Half a block later, they turned left off of Royal Terrace onto a broad walkway curving uphill again into a park. They followed the walkway up, up.
“Calton Hill,” Devin said, trying not to wheeze. “Brittany wanted to hike up here. Good cardio, I’ll give it that.”
Jeffrey said nothing, and they walked on in silence until Devin said, “So what’s it going to be—pistols at ten paces?”
“Sounds good to me,” Jeffrey said.
They kept climbing until the walkway leveled off onto a sort of plateau, a broad rolling field with here and there a number of stone structures. There was a plaque that neither read but stood beside, panting.
Jeffrey remembered that Kate, too, had mentioned Calton Hill and how the guide book said it had one of the best views of the city. He looked out and saw nothing.
Devin broke the silence with a long sigh, then said, “I’ll tell you one thing. I’m tired of eating your shit. I didn’t do anything wrong. All I did was the same thing you did, which was fall for Rachel.”
“So that’s what you think, is it—that you didn’t do anything wrong?”
“That’s what I think. Unless you really do want to duke it out or something, you’re just going to have to get over it.”
Jeffrey gave him a long, appraising look and then said, “I kissed Brittany. And she kissed me back. And I put my hand on her breast.”
Devin came right back with, “Kate touched my balls. If you don’t believe me, ask her.”
As if he hadn’t heard him, Jeffrey looked away. He seemed to be staring with interest at the observatory. Then he sagged like a balloon figure with the air going out of it. He sat down on the curb of the walkway and covered his eyes. Devin thought he was crying.
“I loved her, I loved her so,” he moaned.
Devin put his hand out and then drew it back.
“Of course you love her. And Kate loves you. That thing back at the castle, that was nothing.”
Jeffrey dropped his hand from his eyes, and Devin could see that they were indeed filled with tears.
“I’m not taking about Kate, you idiot,” he said.
“Oh,” Devin said. And then: “I understand. Believe me, I understand.”
Kate and Brittany stood at the edge of the street trying to get a good look at the statue of Grayfriars Bobby. All around them a crowd of Japanese tourists jockeyed for position taking photo after photo. Then at some mysterious signal they all stopped, turned, and started off in the direction of Edinburgh Castle following a harried-looking, bald-headed man raising a pennant on a tall thin pole. Now the two had Bobby all to themselves.
“He was faithful,” Kate said. “He slept on his master’s grave for fourteen years.”
“Maybe we should trade our husbands in on dogs,” Brittany said.
They gazed at Bobby.
“What do you think it is?” Devin asked.
Jeffrey shook his head, frowning. “I don’t know,” he said.
They stared at the twelves stone columns rising from their massive base at the very top of Calton Hill.
“They must have planned to . . .” Devin began but left the sentence hanging.
“They’d hoped to, probably, they’d hoped . . .” Jeffrey said. He pulled the pamphlet out of his back pocket and started to search but then remembered it was a guide to Edinburgh Castle only. He folded it and put it back in his pocket.
Then Devin said, “I’m betting some guy started it, spent his last buck on it, and had to stop. Probably he had in mind some Taj Majal thing—a monument to some grand passion.”
“Or great folly,” Jeffrey said, “assuming there’s a difference.”
“I hope to God there is. If there’s not, we’re all lost.”
They turned away from the columns and saw paved pathways running this way and that, but neither could remember which one would take them back down the hill into Edinburgh.
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with essays and stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including Literary Yard, River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.