The most perfect type of masculine beauty is Satan, as rendered by Milton.
– Charles Baudelaire, Fusées XVI (1866)
The buildup of atherosclerotic plaque in everyone’s body begins at birth, and after that, the rest of life is just waiting to die. Of this circumstance, there is no dispute, no negotiation—it is only what you do between your first breath and last that you can control, and even then, your will is hardly free. Lewis Arnold thinks of this, and of the endarterectomy he performed that morning on a man not far from his own age, as he sits straight-spined and restless at a round table in the crush of the crowded dining room in Hawton’s Chophouse. He would’ve preferred a better spot in the restaurant to celebrate his daughter’s engagement—a quiet booth in the corner—but this was the best he could do on short notice. To his right, Joseph taptaptaps with his thumbs, and to his left, Audrey slathers butter on a roll. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they eat dinner, or so his father said. But what did he know?
“What do you think it means? The way you slam my door every time you come in here,” Dr. Turner said.
“I don’t slam your door.”
“If you can’t even see the obvious, Lewis, I’m not sure I’ll be able to work with you.”
“What a tragedy that would be.”
Across the table, Kimberly is holding hands with Benjamin Schlott, a Jewish man with good posture and nice table manners who Lewis has never met and who will apparently be his son-in-law in six months. A teacher, or something, from Dallas.
They catch eyes and Lewis tries to smile pleasantly, ignore the pulsing in his temple. But it keeps getting worse, now shooting down his cheekbone into his jaw, locking up the muscle so even a small smile feels like he’s grinding his teeth.
“You understand why I’m still charging you for the two weeks you missed?”
“I understand you’re trying to screw me.”
“You have to want to do this. I need to know you value these sessions. That this matters.”
“Are you telling me I have a choice?”
“Say something, you prick.”
“I was in New York. It couldn’t be helped. Unlike your other wacko patients, I have a life.”
“There’s resistance with all new patients, Lewis. You’re not so special. But don’t ever call me a prick again.”
Lewis relishes, slightly and mischievously, the young couple’s naïve discourse about bridesmaids and flower centerpieces, as if it all means something. They are blissfully unaware of the inevitable mutual loathing that plagues all marriages. She’s your problem now, Benny-boy. Enjoy paying for Amazon deliveries the rest of your life.
The waiter arrives at the table, and Lewis rubs his freshly-shaven chin with anticipation. If there is one thing that still makes him happy, besides reading Milton before bed or seeing the look on the face of a patient’s family member—the utter, profound relief and gratitude—after a successful procedure, it is a bloody piece of meat paired with a dry, bold red wine. A pugnacious cab, Elizabeth might say. That, or going to a Cubs day game by himself.
“Tap water or sparkling?” the waiter asks, in the general direction of the group but to nobody in particular.
“Pellegrino,” Lewis says.
“And what about for the rest of us?” Audrey says. Scourge of God. Four decades of hell. She’s wearing a red turtleneck underneath a black blazer. He hasn’t loved her well, he knows, in the past. But he’s trying to love her now.
“You can get whatever you want,” he says. They haven’t had sex in four years. He wonders if his penis would even do anything if she touched it.
“I’m fine with sparkling water too,” Joseph says.
“Since when did you start drinking seltzer?” she says.
Typical Joseph: ordering Pellegrino though he prefers still water, just to be an ass. A restive young man, prone to making impulsive bad decisions, like spending thousands on a trip to South Asia and coming back improved in no discernable way intellectually, though possibly diseased venereally.
“Well, I’d like tap water,” Audrey says, like she’s some kind of martyr for civil rights.
“Last year Joseph bought me a book for my birthday. It’s called 600 Places To See Before You Die.”
“Is he always so morbid?”
“Right? You flip it open randomly and it’s some exotic location no one’s ever heard of. A voodoo festival in Haiti, or a pristine bay in Vietnam. Or something more famous, like the terra-cotta soldier statues in China. Or Victoria Falls. Did you know they’re bigger than Niagara?”
“Of course you did.”
“And you wish you could travel to these places.”
Lewis laughed. “It’s not going to happen. Who would I go with? I’m certainly not going with Audrey. I haven’t had a real conversation with her in twenty years. I suppose I could go with Elizabeth. But even her, not really.”
“Who is this Elizabeth?”
“I don’t mind tap water,” his daughter says.
“Yes, tap water’s fine,” Audrey says.
Back during his presidency, Audrey had confessed doubts about the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate. You’re a traitor to Chicago, Lewis had said. Though he could hardly claim nostalgia for a city that was barely recognizable; his old neighborhood had long ago become a nonstop gang turf war.
And a goddamn moron.
Yes, he’d said it. And he’d apologized, profusely, but they both knew he meant it. Decades of arguments coalesced into one bullet. Whatever you say, Doctor, she said. Then didn’t speak to him for a month.
“I don’t care,” Joseph says, tapping his fork against his salad plate.
“Another lovely weekend in New York?”
“Don’t judge me, Neil. When was the last time you tasted expensive scotch with a beautiful woman and talked about French poetry?”
“Twelve years sober.”
“Why are you always so goddamn serious all the time, Neil?”
“Don’t you take your job seriously?”
“It’s not quite the same thing. I’m out there saving lives every day.”
“You don’t consider therapy saving lives?”
Lewis raises his eyebrows at Benjamin, who looks as if he wishes he could turn himself into a pillar of salt. “Benny, my boy? Care to break the tie?”
“Anything’s fine with me,” he mumbles.
Lewis looks up at the waiter, and looks back at Benjamin, then back again at the waiter, imploring him silently to empathize with the absurdity of the situation, as if saying, See? See what I have to deal with? But the waiter stands in place, looking bored, perhaps tracing the pattern of red and gold diamonds on the carpet.
“Sparkling,” Lewis says finally.
“So, one bottle of Pellegrino, and tap waters for the rest of you.”
“Yea, sure,” Joseph says, but the waiter is already gone.
“Why does it have to be so goddamn difficult just to order water?” Lewis says, but Audrey’s face is nose-deep in her menu.
“So, are you considering divorce? Legal separation?”
“That’s never been on the table.”
“What’s she gonna do? What would I do?”
“Do you want to get better, Lewis?”
“What do you think?”
The last night Joseph spent in the house in Highland Park was blistering cold. Lewis remembers the date because Joseph stayed at a friend’s house the rest of his senior year, and there was nothing Lewis could do about it. Upon coming home that night, after bumper to bumper traffic on icy roads, Lewis had been assaulted by earsplitting noise bleeding through the door of Joseph’s room. He made it ten minutes into dinner with the bass and kick drum pounding the ceiling of the dining room, where he and Audrey were trying to eat like civilized people, and then he couldn’t it take any more. He stood up and threw his napkin onto his plate.
“It’s okay,” Audrey had said, staring down at her food.
“It’s not okay,” Lewis said. He stomped around Audrey’s chair to the stairs. “Why can’t you take care of this?”
He pounded his fist on Joseph’s door, which was covered in stickers of bands with idiotic names, and wished he didn’t have to be such a monster.
“Shut that goddamn music off!” Lewis screamed, pummeling the door.
Nothing happened. The door was locked. Lewis stood back a few feet, then smashed his foot into the doorknob, shattering the jamb as the door flung open.
Joseph scrambled up from his desk, where he was doing homework or something, and backed up against the wall. Lewis barged in and screamed at his son, their faces inches apart.
“YOU SHUT IT OFF! YOU SHUT OFF THAT MUSIC!”
Joseph scurried around Lewis and powered off the stereo, the one they’d gotten him for Christmas a couple of years earlier. He hated to see the fear on his son’s face.
Lewis trudged back downstairs, enervated and disheartened, took his seat at the table, and stabbed a piece of fried pork chop with his knife. He shoved the mound into his mouth.
“This is cold already,” Lewis said. He could barely swallow, from the knot in his throat.
“Do you want me to heat it up?” Audrey asked.
“It’s fine.” He wanted Joseph to know how easy he had it. That if Lewis were his father, Joseph wouldn’t be able to walk tomorrow. But it was the terror. The weakness. It made Lewis ashamed of his son, and he hated him for it. He wondered if he’d be propping up Joseph his whole life, that the boy would never succeed. Like Lewis had, poor to rich, hard work, the American Dream.
“I know Audrey wishes we had grandkids by now.”
“Are you upset that you don’t?”
“Are you even listening to me? I said Audrey. Not me, Neil. Aren’t I paying you to listen?”
“You’re paying me to help you out of this mess.”
“Audrey, she wants Kimmy and this… Benjamin guy to get married already and start popping out kids. We haven’t even met him. And she wants it yesterday. The thing is, it’s only for a lack of anything better to do.”
“We have a cat.”
“You with me today, Neil? You all there?”
“I’m here to listen, isn’t that what you said?”
“Audrey loves that goddamn cat. It’s okay. Sits around all day. Just like Audrey. Neither of them do anything. They watch Fox News and soap operas. And she plays on her little computer.”
“Does that bother you?”
“What bothers me is that she doesn’t say anything interesting. Never talks about art, or poetry, or literature. Even politics, she regurgitates the asinine talking points that she doesn’t understand, like complaining about immigration. Her mother was born in Ireland, but she seems to be conveniently unaware of this fact.”
“Do you want grandchildren?”
“Come on, I’m not old enough to be a grandfather. Are you?”
“You seem to be quite good at lying to yourself.”
“You got grandkids?”
“Does it matter?”
“I think it does.”
“I have two young grandsons. They’re both little shits.”
After an excruciating silence, a busboy comes by with glasses of water. The waiter returns with the sommelier, and Lewis points out a ninety-dollar bottle of cabernet sauvignon, when the phone Audrey doesn’t know about buzzes against his leg. He lets it go to voicemail. There will be plenty of time to talk with Elizabeth later tonight.
Lewis lets Kimberly order first, and they circle the table. Benjamin orders a lobster bisque and shrimp arrabbiata.
“Not kosher?” Lewis asks Benjamin.
Plus, Elizabeth isn’t supposed to call. He told her they’d video chat after Audrey ambiened herself to sleep.
“Dad!” Kimberly says.
Elizabeth directs the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. They met a year ago at a five-hundred-dollar-a-plate fundraiser sponsored by his hospital, and spent the evening drinking wine and discussing half the country’s hypocritical and outrageous ratiocination of and slavish devotion to, “that imbecile in the White House,” as she’d called him.
She’d spent her twenties in Europe, mostly Rome and Athens. She’d been to the original Tree of Hippocrates on Kos, she told him, and then explained what that was. He told her she was fortunate, despite the heartbreak of her divorce (a “beautiful” and “dastardly” Spaniard named Alessio, apparently) that she never had children, though she disagreed. On the plane back to O’Hare he recognized a feeling he hadn’t had in decades. He was smitten. He was charmed. He couldn’t stop thinking about her, the sharp lines around the corners of her mouth when she smiled, or how she used words like dastardly, and ratiocination.
“What?” Lewis says, trying to sound innocent.
Thirty-five years of frustration with Audrey, finally starting to turn around. Yet still he daydreams about a life in New York with Elizabeth, strolling around Central Park, watching operas at The Met, summering at her cottage in the Hamptons.
“Of course he’s not kosher,” Kimberley says.
Elizabeth is Jewish in the way all New Yorkers are Jewish, even the Christians. Apparently, the same way as Benny-boy.
“Fine, he’s not kosher,” Lewis says. The waiter is awaiting his order, ignoring the argument, like a pro. “I’ll take the twenty-two-ounce bone-in ribeye. Rare. Creamed spinach and potatoes au gratin.”
“Lewis,” Audrey whispers. “Your blood pressure.”
The rage comes immediately. “I can order my own meal,” he whispers back. “I’m not a child.”
“So then don’t be,” she says.
He rolls his eyes, then takes a deep breath. “Fine. Petite filet and a garden salad.”
He wants to chuck the menu at the waiter. But it’s not that guy’s fault.
“Happy?” he says.
Audrey looks satisfied, the cat that ate the canary. He reminds himself she nags because she cares. It’s infuriating.
“I’m not a degenerate gambler. I never beat my kids. I’m not a drunk. Sorry.”
“That’s not what this is about. This is about stress. Hypertension. Your doctor is concerned about you.”
“I was a stockboy at Marshall Field’s when I was in high school. You think I didn’t want to play football with my friends? Take a girl out to the movies? I did. But I got a job instead. Then. Then, I went to med school. I barely got to see Audrey when we were first married. She was so beautiful, back then. Thin, with long curly brown hair, always smiling and laughing. She’s still beautiful, of course. But I rarely see her smile. Fuck. I practically didn’t even see my kids grow up. I sacrificed.”
“Do you regret it?”
“It’s just a question, Lewis.”
“I used to look at my shitty wife and the two pieces of shit we created and think, how the fuck did I go so wrong? But now I know that was just the anger. Thank you very much. That was the rage that killed my father. A man does what a man has to do. And you can let it kill you or you can let it make you stronger. So no, I don’t regret it.”
“A man does do what a man has to do. But not beating the shit out of your kids? Does that make you a man?”
“So, Ben-Who-Isn’t-Kosher, what do you do for a living?”
Elizabeth says it’s possible, that anything is possible, if you really want it, but deep in the lacuna between fantasy and reality, Lewis knows it will never happen. Not everything is possible. Life doesn’t work that way.
“I told you what he does,” Kimberly says.
For their six-month “anniversary,” Lewis had a leather-bound French edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleur Du Mal sent to Elizabeth’s apartment, though her bookshelf was already crammed with museum literature, critical philosophy, years of The New Yorker. In return she’d bought him a vintage sterling silver ballpoint pen with the Rod of Asclepius on it. He wished he could bring it home to Chicago with him.
“Let him answer,” Lewis says.
What Lewis admires about Elizabeth is that she cares deeply, and sincerely, about art. She majored in Ancient Art History at Dartmouth. She keeps a spectacular wine fridge (the three times he’d seen it). Audrey, on the other hand, drinks Sunset Blush from a box and decorated their house with facsimile paintings from catalogues.
“I’m a middle-grade guidance counselor,” Benjamin says.
Lewis imagines Dr. Turner, with his smug goatee and silly wool sweaters, the back issues of Psychology Today and Prevention strewn across a cheap coffee table and the quiet, stale air of his Streeterville office lobby.
“Right, right, of course,” Lewis says. “And what, exactly, do you have to guide a twelve-year-old about? Which finger to use to pick his nose?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Benjamin replies. “Everything you think is complicated in your life now, well, it’s a microcosm in seventh grade.”
Lewis snorts. “Doubtful.”
“I commuted an hour each way, every day, for thirty years, to give them a big house in Highland Park. Kimberly needed her own bathroom. She needed a phone. She needed one. My son needed a PlayStation, an Xbox. They got a pool. A basketball hoop on the driveway. Swimming lessons. Violin lessons. They rode horses. They had math tutors and SAT tutors. Every advantage, they had. And I gave it to them. And my son, you know what he did?”
“What did John do?”
“Joseph, Neil. His name is fucking Joseph.”
“Joseph got himself expelled from DePaul for selling drugs.”
Through the dim interior of the restaurant, Lewis watches the curvaceous silhouette of a woman shaking out of her coat, bathed in a pool of light from the streetlamps outside, and he imagines this bodily corona could be hot enough to melt the brass banister of the bar. Her form is fuzzy, in fact, like she is actually surrounded by some kind of energy aura.
Ah, to be young, and beautiful. Is Elizabeth’s proposal really possible? To just, leave? It seems so unlikely that a man, at the age of sixty, almost elderly—how that word horrifies him—can simply start his life over again. Hell, they’ve never even kissed.
Kimberly prattles on about the venue, listing the pros and cons of a DJ versus a full band, naming the shortlist of those definitely in the wedding party and those who would, unfortunately, not be invited at all.
Joseph excuses himself to go to the restroom. Lewis realizes he also kind of has to go, but as he stands up he feels a little dizzy, so he sits down quickly.
Audrey looks at him, puzzled.
“What is it about you, Neil? Why is it that I can’t even look you in the face?”
“People often despise in other people what they see in themselves.”
“And what do I see when I look at you, besides somebody who thinks they know everything?”
“You see a man who is aging.”
“So, are you getting married in a church?” Lewis asks, though he’s pretty sure they won’t.
Kimberly looks at her fiancé. “Nuh-uh.”
“Temple?” Lewis feels a pain shoot up his left leg, and he shifts his weight.
“We’re thinking of doing the ceremony outside,” Benjamin says, “on the venue’s lawn.”
“That’ll be so nice,” Audrey says. “The weather should be beautiful.”
“We found a non-denominational officiator.”
“But you’re going to break the glass, right?”
“Yes,” Benjamin says, “I thought I might.”
“Fine with me,” Lewis says. And it is. Go ahead, break the glass. Lewis knows he must choose his battles, and falling on his sword for this one will mean losing another, more important one, like getting his grandchild baptized. The Jews may not believe in hell, and Lewis has his doubts about God and the Devil, but some traditions you don’t break. Saving the innocent’s immortal soul, for one.
Just in case.
“So…” Kimberly says, and stops. “We wanted to talk about…um…”
Audrey puts her hand on Lewis’s knee, and he grasps it with his own. He knows what’s coming, and he’s genuinely interested in how they will phrase it. Will Benjamin be man enough to come right out and ask?
“We’re, like, doing all this planning…” Kimberly continues, trailing off. She looks at Benjamin for support. Codependency, Lewis thinks. He’s learned a thing or two from Dr. Turner this past year. He’ll have to talk to her about that at some point down the line. It’s not healthy.
Audrey looks as if she might say something but Lewis squeezes her hand, hard. He realizes he wants this uncomfortable moment to last as long as possible.
Benjamin clears his throat. “So the thing is,” he says, “we have some money saved.”
“That’s prudent,” Lewis says.
“Right, sure. Very prudent. But the thing is, we want to buy a house.”
“How nice,” Lewis says. “White picket fence. Two point two children.”
Benjamin looks at Kimberly. “Sure…”
“Where…are you looking to buy?” Audrey says, a hint of trepidation in her voice. Lewis knows that Audrey wants nothing more than for Kimberly (and Benjamin, now) to move back to Chicago. He hates to admit that he actually agrees with her on that point. They should come home to start a family.
“Spit it out, son,” Lewis says.
Benjamin finally breaks his gaze from Kimberly and meets Audrey’s eyes. “In Dallas.”
Lewis can sense that those two words, “in Dallas,” have broken Audrey’s heart more than anything he could possibly confess about Elizabeth. She might even be relieved if he found another woman. But to be a thousand miles away from her daughter and her grandchildren, that would be too much. Maybe she’ll want to move to Dallas, now, too.
“Of course,” Audrey says softly, and Lewis squeezes her hand again, gently this time, because it is the best he can do, under the circumstances, and because it pains him greatly to see her upset.
“I look at him and I wonder, Is this my son? Or does he really belong to that asshole? I tried to teach him. The little fork for the salad, the big one for the entrée. But he has no idea. When I was a kid if I used the wrong soup spoon, my father would lean across the table and punch me in the arm. If I ate too slowly, he’d smack me in the back of the head and tell me to hurry up. If I ate too fast he’d punch me in the gut so I’d vomit. He always said that you could tell a lot about a man by the way he ate dinner. Like it was some mantra, or some wisdom. But it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Was your father always so violent?” Dr. Turner said.
“Oh, come on now, I’m not saying he was violent. He wasn’t violent. He didn’t drink. No drugs. He grew up in some hard times, the likes of which people like you and I have never even seen. Those people, it was different. He would unplug the clock when he left the apartment. Sometimes you need, you know, a steam vent. And the valves were me and my mother.”
“How long did this trauma go on?”
“Until he died. A massive stroke, bam! Rest in peace.”
“How did it make you feel?”
“How did it make me feel? I remember this one time, when I was oh, about seven, when he grabbed my mother by her shoulders and shook so hard her glasses fell off. How does it make me feel. What kind of stupid question is that?”
He had considered divorcing Audrey, once, many moons ago. She’d had an affair with a lawyer, back when she was a legal secretary. Things were never the same after that. Not after Lewis discovered them—accidentally, of course—when he’d shown up at their office with flowers, some kind of apology for a fight he could no longer remember. It was eight months before Joseph was born, in fact. So it all could’ve been true. They were fucking on the desk, like in a goddamn movie. Audrey hadn’t known she was pregnant yet. And the worst part, the very worst part, was that, in the moment right before she’d realized Lewis was in the room, Audrey had looked so goddamn happy.
But he’d had the paternity test, and Lewis was indeed Joseph’s father. And if they didn’t get divorced then, they certainly wouldn’t now.
“So,” Benjamin is saying, “the price tag has sort of ballooned—”
“What do you mean, sort of?” Lewis says. The pain in his jaw has intensified, a full-on migraine.
“If we hire the wedding planner, the band, the venue, the flowers—”
“Why do you need a wedding planner?”
“Dad!” Kimberley says.
“Well, it’s kind of, sort of like, required by the venue, nowadays, and then there’s the food, which, by all estimations, because we want there to be a lot of people, not just my family, which is kind of small, but your family, all the folks in Chicago, and then you’ve got family in St. Louis, and Orlando—”
“Get to the point, Ben.” Lewis hasn’t spoken to either of his brothers in St. Louis since their mother died.
“Dad!” Kimberly says.
“No,” Benjamin says, “he’s right. Look. We both work very hard.”
Benjamin stops talking, as if his point is made.
“We all do, Ben,” Lewis says.
“No, yes, of course. Everyone does. But we are having trouble with, it seems like we might not be able to afford the wedding that she—I mean, that we—want.”
“So we’d like to ask for your help.”
“I see,” Lewis says. “And your parents, Ben, will they help as well?” He can afford to pay for the wedding himself, he’s pretty sure, but fair is fair.
Benjamin looks back and forth between Kimberly and Lewis, then inhales. “My parents aren’t really,” he says. “They’re not quite in the position to, I mean, they’re going to help out must as they can, of course. But I’m not sure they can offer much.”
“Ah,” Lewis says. “I’m sorry to hear it.”
Kimberly must know that he and Audrey will pay for their wedding, whatever the cost, fair or not. He hasn’t let her down thus far in her life; he’s not going to start now. A Volkswagen Jetta on her sixteenth birthday (though she scoffed that it was pre-owned). Five years at Tulane and two semesters in Europe (which she predominantly spent drinking and dancing in nightclubs). Every new iMac and iPod and iPad and iWhatever MacDevice as soon as it came out, designer purses, an endless supply of makeup. Audrey still sends her a check every month for walking-around money.
“Sorry about what, exactly?” Benjamin says.
“Oh,” Benjamin says, a little louder, his face reddening. “You said you were sorry to hear it. I was asking what, exactly, you’re sorry about.”
“It’s just an expression,” Lewis says. So, Benny-boy can get a little testy. He’s got some stones. Good. “Calm down.”
“I’m calm,” Benjamin says.
“I was a family man.”
“How so? That’s all you guys ever do.”
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, Neil.”
“Are you really so sensitive?”
For the first time, Lewis was speechless.
“Now. What does the term ‘family man’ mean to you?”
“Someone who dedicated his life to his family,” Lewis said. “Wasn’t selfish. Put them first. A real man. You did what you had to, and you didn’t complain about it.”
“So, why the past tense just now?”
Lewis couldn’t help himself from smiling.
The tension is scarcely ameliorated when Joseph sits back down at the table. “What did I miss?” he says, into the silence.
“Oh nuts-n-honey,” Audrey says. “We were talking about where Kimberly should take Benjamin. Architectural tour on the river, Hancock Building, Sears Tower, or both?”
“It’s called the Willis Tower now, Ma. It’s been like ten years.”
“We were talking about how expensive their wedding is going to be,” Lewis says. He can’t fathom why she still feels the need to protect their son from conflict.
“Um, okay. So should I leave?” Joseph says, almost as if he wants to.
“Of course not,” Lewis says. “But speaking of money, how’s the new job?”
“It’s fine.” There’s always a new job with Joseph. He lives in a large, dirty apartment in Wrigleyville, and can’t hold down a job for more than a few months. Lewis can never pin down what his son does all day. Something with Twitter.
“And what is your title, again?”
“Associate social media coordinator.”
“Four whole words, though.”
When Joseph was a boy, Lewis once finagled a press pass into Cubs’ clubhouse so they could meet Sammy Sosa. Joseph played right field in Little League, wore number twenty-one, and had brought his glove to the game in the vain hope of catching a ball. He even brought a rookie card for Sosa to sign. When Sosa brushed past Lewis and Joseph without so much as even acknowledging them, Lewis did nothing. Well, I guess he’s pretty busy, Lewis had said, and they watched the game glumly and went home, and the look of disappointment on his son’s face was the same look he’d seen so many times on Audrey’s face, the same features, the same bright blue eyes and furrowed brow, and even now he burned with shame for not grabbing that son of a bitch by the shoulder and demanding an autograph, or at least nod of encouragement for his son.
“Yeah, it’s basically still entry-level,” Joseph said.
“They’re all right.”
“I’d rather not talk about that in front of everyone,” Joseph says.
“She just doesn’t get it. After this many years, she will never get it.”
“Get what, exactly?”
“I feel like I’m living two lives…”
“But… I’m not living either. I’m a goddamn surgeon, goddamn it. I’m supposed to be the king of the country. Yet I’m not living at all.”
“And that’s not okay for you anymore?”
The waiter backs through the kitchen doors and spins around into the dining room, impressively balancing five plates in his hands and across his forearms. These guys here at Hawton’s are professionals, you have to give them that. Lewis is going to ask for a side of penne in vodka sauce, cholesterol be damned. A splurge now and again isn’t the worst thing in the world. Seeing the food puts him in a good mood, he realizes. His mouth is actually watering.
Maybe Dallas won’t be so bad. Hell of a lot warmer than Chicago. And a growing, older population, which means plenty of work. It also means leaving Joseph here alone, up to his own devices, but the boy is almost thirty, well past time to start being his own man. And, conveniently, it’ll justify Lewis to stop paying the rent for that slum in Wrigleyville.
“Get ready, Benjamin,” he says, trying to be conciliatory. “This is the state of the art.”
And surely there will be grandkids soon. It might even be fun, playing with them. “I’m willing to bet they don’t have restaurants like this where you’re from.”
“Well, it’s Dallas,” Benjamin says. “We’ve got, like, the best steakhouses in the nation.”
“Not this good.” Lewis hates when people argue for no reason.
“Um, but wait,” Kimberly says, lifting her hand as if trying to answer a question in class.
“We’re talking about the food now, honey,” Lewis says.
“But the wedding—”
“I thought we covered this already,” Lewis says.
“But,” Kimberly says.
“Of course we’re going to pay for it,” Lewis says. “Now. Benny, my boy: you two have been dating, what, three years now?”
“Four,” Benjamin replies.
“Four years.” He turns back to his daughter. “Kimmy, I don’t understand. How come you haven’t brought him back to Chicago?”
She looks apprehensive for some reason, which is odd. Or, surprised. “Never came up, I guess.”
Lewis raises his wine glass and waits for his family to get the drift. His arm feels heavy for some reason, so he switches his glass to the other. “Well,” he says, “to Benjamin, It’s nice to finally meet you.”
They all raise their wine glasses, water for Audrey because she doesn’t drink, and Joseph says, “Welcome to the family, bro,” and they all laugh, though it’s not funny, and clink a mock-cheers.
Lewis can smell the food, now. “A thought occurs to me,” he says. “Let’s swing by Margie’s Candies for an ice cream sundae after this.”
“That would be fun,” Audrey says, and Lewis feels a pang of real warmth for her. As much as he used to wish her gone, the truth is that the fantasy of an unfettered life without her always terrified him more than the mirthless reality of her inveterate philistinism. In truth, he knew, he adored her.
“Margie’s is an institution here in the Windy City,” he says to Benjamin. “Al Capone went there. It’s over in Wicker Park—”
“Bucktown,” Audrey says.
“Bucktown, whatever. Humboldt Park. Logan Square. All the same place. We used to take the kids all the time, didn’t we?”
“No you didn’t,” Joseph says quietly, and Lewis chooses to ignore him.
“I hadn’t had a real conversation with my wife in years. Until last night. We talked about Kim and Ben coming in tomorrow, and taking them out to dinner, and maybe visiting Paris this summer instead of Paul and his obnoxious family in Orlando again. I’ve always wanted to see Paris. I’m actually kind of… excited. About my life. For the first time in a long time.”
“So it works then?”
“I’ll be damned, Neil. You finally made a joke.”
Lewis sets down his wine glass and reaches for a hunk of dinner roll to sop up salted oil. Benny seems like a good kid. And the Jews and the Catholics, everyone’s all trying to get to the same place. They’re just taking different roads to get there. “Tomorrow we’re doing Lou Malnati’s. You can’t visit Chicago without eating deep dish, Ben.”
Lewis doesn’t feel the betrayal. He doesn’t feel the tiny clot of bloodfat detach itself from his carotid artery and send itself soaring through his blood like a man in a small canoe plunging through whitewater rapids, propelled by his beleaguered, treasonous heart, fighting mightily and courageously against the thirty-two point two feet per second per second pull of gravity, up his neck toward his brain.
Lewis looks at his family, soon to be expanded by one, and considers—no, resolves—to end things with Elizabeth when they speak later that night. Permanently. Lewis can’t offer her anything; his life is too bound up with Audrey and his kids, even if it isn’t perfect. And Elizabeth, she’s still young. You know, I envy your wife, she’d once said, and Lewis sort of laughed and asked why. He then listed all the wonderful things Elizabeth had: the travel, the art, the beautiful apartment, the adventures. Elizabeth had once taken a fucking helicopter to ski down a mountain in British Columbia. She’s raised two kids, she replied.
No, Elizabeth needs to find a man who actually lives in New York—or will take the plunge and move there—and who will make love to her, and treat her the way she deserves. Lewis knows he can do none of those things. And he knows that, deep down, he doesn’t want to. He wants to grow old with Audrey.
And so while he’s thinking this Lewis does not understand why, when he tries to daub the bread into his plate of salted olive oil his hand won’t move the way he wants it to, and he doesn’t understand why his wife and daughter are screaming at him, are they so excited about Margie’s Candies, or Lou Malnati’s? He tells them both to sit down and conduct themselves accordingly, they are in a fancy restaurant, for Chrissakes, but they keep gesturing and now even Joseph has stood up, his chair falling backward, the kid needs to get a hold of himself—
Lewis does not feel the furnace of blood vessels, bursted in flame.
He does not see the left half of his body go slack, but the darkness visible.