I don’t know how Myra Cunningham came into our lives.  Perhaps my mother met her at the USO canteen, where women, married and single, volunteered to serve coffee and cookies to soldiers, talk to them, play bridge with them, and help them with letters back home.  Myra was a compact little woman with blonde hair faded to mouse-brown, tiny green eyes, and disproportionately large breasts.  She was inordinately proud of the breasts and would periodically take deep breaths to call attention to them.

She began dropping by the house in the afternoon to have a Coke, gossip, and complain.  Her husband, a regular Army officer, had been transferred overseas; and she had been left behind with three children to raise—a girl and two teenage boys.  Her husband’s last stateside assignment had been at the local airbase; and since the Florida weather was mild, the Gulf beaches were a blinding white, and her children were already attending local schools, she decided to stay put until the War was over.

One day, she dropped by and hung around until after six.  My father arrived from the office, and she immediately took notice.  He was short and had a formidable belly.  Otherwise, he was a handsome man—black hair slicked down like a 1920’s jelly bean’s, dark brown eyes, and a full set of picture-perfect teeth.  He had been in the house no more than five minutes when Myra began taking deep breaths.

The next afternoon—perched on a kitchen stool, sipping a Coke—she said to my mother, “You don’t have very big breasts, do you?”

My mother laughed, “No.  And a good thing, too.  Joe doesn’t like big breasts.  He’s a leg man.”

That evening Myra again stayed until my father arrived.  When he came through the front door, she was arranged on the sofa, skirt pulled up, short, plump legs splayed.  My mother was amused and invited her to stay for dinner.  It was a mistake.

It never occurred to her that my father would find this meretricious little woman attractive, much less that he would fall in love with her.  He was, my mother had long ago concluded, too puritanical to enjoy sex, even in marriage.  Decades later, she told my wife that, when frustrated by lack of affection, she occasionally climbed into my father’s bed.  Instead of turning to her, he would fight her off as bravely as the blue-eyed virgin in a 19th-century novel.

Obviously, he had learned about sex from Granny, who had warned my mother before her marriage, “Betty, men like to do nasty things, and you just have to let them.”  Granny enjoyed telling of the time when, in the midst of intercourse, my grandfather had stopped the primal motion, looked down at her, and said, “You’d just as soon be picking blackberries, wouldn’t you?”

Perhaps my father found sexual intimacy so degrading that he could only feel comfortable with it when he was wallowing in the mud of an illicit fling—snout in a trough, sucking swill, his hair-infested belly hanging down on hers, short of breath as he pumped up his pleasure and perhaps Myra’s, though I suspect she wouldn’t have absolutely required it.

Or maybe he was a closet romantic, searching for ideal beauty in the bed of a dumpy, middle-aged woman.  He loved Tchaikovsky and would sit for hours, volume up, listening to the unbearably sweet, soaring melodies of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, eyes closed, dreaming no doubt of Aphrodite.  At that moment, in the middle of a crescendo, Myra Cunningham had pirouetted onto the stage on her unlikely legs.

For several months Myra pursued him—openly, brazenly.  Dropping by the house in the evenings, showing up at Walpole’s lunch counter after she found out where he ate lunch every weekday.  My mother finally realized that Myra wanted to humiliate her as well as seduce my father.  Myra saw her as a woman whose life was safer and more comfortable than her own.  My mother’s husband slept in the same room rather than in a BOQ somewhere halfway around the world.  And my mother had a child whose father came home every night.  So Myra was driven by envy as well as lust—two of the Seven Deadlies.  One was more than enough to mess up lives.

That summer we drove to New York to visited my Aunt Ann and Uncle Stuart, in Dobbs Ferry, just up the Hudson from New York City.  Uncle Stuart was a radio director, known among his colleagues for his philandering, a habit my aunt had learned to tolerate.  My father—erroneously assuming that one old adulterer could trust another—gave Myra my uncle’s New York mailing address.

A love letter arrived.  Uncle Paul slipped it to my father with a wink, then told my aunt about the arrangement, as if to say, “You see, my dear.  It’s what we men do.”  My aunt—convincing herself that it was her duty rather than her sly pleasure—passed along this intelligence to my mother.

At the age of 13, I was unaware of the crisis taking place behind closed doors: angry tears, indignant denials, threats, recriminations.  One evening my mother told me that my father and I would be driving back to Florida the next morning, and she would be staying in Dobbs Ferry for a while.

I should have suspected something after we got back home.  My father announced that he was going to buy me a dog.

“What’ll Mother say?” I asked.

She had long ago established a strict, nonamendable No-Dog Policy.  The dog, I realized many years later, was not for me but for him—a best friend to keep him company on cold winter nights—in the apartment he would rent after the divorce.

The next afternoon he came home with a squirming, yelping wire-haired terrier pinned under his arm.  He called me outside, grinning, raising his eyebrows, brandishing the dog like a trophy.  When he put it down on the driveway, the animal began to jump and twist wildly, all the while peeing on the concrete.  I stooped to pat it, and it began to bark and wiggle in uncontrollable ecstasy.

“I had a dog like that when I was about your age,” my father said.  “His name was Tige.”

“Did he ever stop jumping around?”

“No.  That’s the way they are.”

I stood up and the dog began to dance around me, nipping and pawing at my shins and knees.

“I wish they weren’t,” I said.

A pause.

“When is Mother coming home?”

“Soon,” he said, face frozen.  “Soon.”

She stayed away for three more weeks, and finally returned on the Silver Meteor, having resolved that a divorce would be too hard on everybody, particularly on me.  We picked her up at the depot in Tampa, and she gave me a warm embrace, while my father hung back and watched.

“Daddy got me a dog,” I said, as we walked to the car.

He was walking behind, carrying her two suitcases; and she glanced back at him, the muscles in her jaw rippling.

“Is that so?”

“Can I keep it?” I asked, hoping, praying she would say no.

“We’ll see.”

The next day the dog was gone, and after that, none of us ever said a word about it.

As for Myra Cunningham, I never saw her again.  She was no longer a fixture in our kitchen, drinking Cokes, taking deep breaths, splaying her legs.  I can only guess he broke off the relationship, probably by sending a terse, typed note: “Betty knows.  I think it best that we not see each other again.”  He would have been too big a coward to tell her face to face.

I also believe that when she read the note, Myra Cunningham tossed her head, laughed, and said, “Well, that’s that.”

I heard that her husband had come back to Framalopa after the War, and that for a while the family lived there, until the three children had finished high school and were off to college.  Then they had moved back to some godawful place like Massachusetts.  I’ve always wondered if the husband knew what kind of woman she was and just didn’t care.  Or if he believed she had refused to sit under the apple tree with anyone else but him.

How many women cheated on their husbands between 1942 and 1945?  And how many husbands cheated on their wives?  Generals like Eisenhower and Patton had mistresses who traveled with them.  The second lieutenants and enlisted men had to be content with two-week affairs and one-night stands.  They were shipped all over the country and then all over the world, thousands of miles from the eyes of neighbors and the beds of wives.

Then, too, in such desperate times, every man who wore a uniform was a hero—defender of women and children, savior of the flag.  For the first two years of the War, we stoically believed that one day Japanese planes would appear in the sky and rain fire on our beaches, orange groves, and trailer parks.  Mrs. Rice, the high-strung principal of Southside Elementary School, told us—nose reddening, a catch in her voice—that they would “bum” our very school, “make no mistake about it,” waving the prophetic finger!  In anticipation of that terrifying certainty, we had periodic “bum drills,” during which we would crouch behind the outdoor stage and imagine a bum as big as the Palmer Bank blowing the school building to dust before our very eyes.

If anything could forestall such horrors, we came to believe, it was our men in uniform, who were stronger, braver, and purer than the simian Japanese.  This view was one reason why women who, in better times, might have remained chaste and true allowed soldiers into their bedrooms.  Indeed, for almost five years soldiers, sailors, and Marines were greater celebrities than Hollywood stars and baseball players.