Fiction - Winter 2017

Come, Labor On

By Tom Jenks | December 5, 2016
Ken Lund/Flickr

 

I didn’t fly here to listen to your precious prattle about your kids, Red erupted at Happy, who’d been telling Mr. Original about her teenage daughter’s summer internship at Hotseat Capital. Conversation stopped, and the old friends around the dinner table looked warily at each other and at Red, who was florid with drink and irritation, and then at Happy, who was stung but appeared unfazed. And here I was worried you’d gone soft, Happy said. But you’re right, let’s talk about something else. She moved her hands through her thick dark hair, as if freeing herself from an attitude, smiled at her audience, and said, Really, I’m glad to be away from the kids for a few days. Sorry for running on about it.

Maestro, who’d organized the reunion and recognized Red’s outburst as a matter of impatient anxiety, said in a jocular way, Red’s not happy unless we’re talking about him. So how about it, Red, tell us what you’re working on these days.

I’ll tell you what I’m not working on, Red spluttered. I’m not working on these fucking conventional, empty lives you’ve cultivated for yourselves. What happened? You promised yourselves you’d do something great, each of you.

We did? Exeter said. I don’t remember that. Exeter, whose real name was Charlie Little, wore round tortoiseshell spectacles and had the same deceptively innocent face they all remembered.

Implicit, Red growled. You know what I meant.

We know, Runway said easily, but why chastise yourself? You’ve done a lot.

Red drew back into himself, casting bristly glances at the others, since no one was giving him the argument he wanted.

Anyway, Runway continued, there’s what we’ve done and there’s what we have yet to do. I’m not done yet. Her eyes cut modestly sideways and down, her lashes dipping, her quiet smile completing a dusky look immortalized decades earlier in Vogue, W, Interview. She’d once hosted SNL. Now she appeared in an infomercial for anti-aging skin-care products.

Maestro raised his glass. Here, here! To old age!

Happy laughed. Not me!

And Mr. Original said, It’s important to keep moving.

Exeter blinked behind his glasses, and his voice pitched up, boasting, My father lived to 101!

Oh, god, Red said and poured himself more Ducru. He was a rumpled overweight mess with a buzz-saw mind. For so long he’d cut through everyone’s illusions except his own that he’d finally become the disagreeable persona that he assumed others believed veiled his better self, or perhaps he didn’t care, not really, for more than his mind. Boredom and vanity led him unwittingly, and grumbling all the way, back to the companions of his youth for self-validation. He was lonely.

They’d given each other their nicknames during their 20s and 30s in Manhattan. By a decade Red and Maestro were the oldest. None were originally from the city, and all of them except Runway and Maestro had moved away. The nicknames were playfully ironic and reflected kernels of identity they understood in ways no one outside the group could. The past year, one of them, Sparrow, committed suicide in the face of dementia, prompting Maestro to bring them together with the unspoken thought, One last time. Red had been closest to Sparrow, but a resentment born of envy or competitiveness rose between them, and they’d fallen out of touch. Part of Red’s vexation with himself and the reunion was mortal fear roused by Sparrow’s death, and part was Red’s natural crankiness. Happy thought Red must regret not having made up with Sparrow, and she felt for Red, but if somewhere inside he felt the loss, he didn’t recognize it. He leaned on his superiority, his endurance. Sparrow and the past were gone. And Red knew that if the roles were reversed, Sparrow would have bowed his head at Red’s passing and then moved on. So far the others had avoided talking about Sparrow, not wanting to cast a pall. Red wouldn’t bring him up but was sure Maestro would and was ready with a toast, not wanting to forfeit the high ground.

Happy and Exeter were reminiscing about grad school days, and Mr. Original, who’d lately developed the unfortunate notion that his wife kept him from fulfilling himself, touched Happy’s forearm where it rested near his plate on the dinner table. Your kids are doing well. So are mine. Soon the job will be done, he suggested.

Oh. Happy turned her sparkling eyes on him. The job’s never done. Children. She laughed lightly. We’ll always be parents.

Children make you a hostage to fortune, Red interrupted smugly. That’s why I never had any.

To have any, Runway countered, you’d have needed a wife, or at least a partner, first.

Same to you, Red said.

Runway, who’d long abandoned her AME upbringing and who’d had many lovers, blew Red a kiss and said, I could have married you and been a Jewish mother.

Maestro hooted. A dream come true for Red.

Runway smiled her modest smile, like a little mock curtsy. Thank you, Maestro.

Red scowled. You can’t imagine my dreams.

Nightmares? Runway asked. She had an intuitive’s quick gut-level knowing.

Sure, Red said, and what about you? Sugarplum fairies?

Runway laughed. Oh, I sleep. Love to sleep.

Mr. Original did a double take of Runway and Maestro. Had he somehow missed that they’d once been lovers? Was he imagining it? Beauty and the beast? No way. Mr. Original sat up straighter, drawing his stomach in. She ran with the Factory crowd and underwear models … no way she’d go for someone as pudgy as Maestro. But she’d taken a turn with that hobbled Mets first baseman, so maybe Maestro was possible.

Last time I saw Red—Exeter leaned forward, eagerly glancing around the table, glad to have something provocative to impart—when was it, Red? Ten years ago? At that opening. He had two lovelies, one on each arm.

Professionals, Maestro said, and they all laughed. Red blushed all the way down his neck and glared with angry pride.

Happy, with only a hint of impatience, said, I don’t know. I did everything I wanted to do professionally when I was a prosecutor, and I could have gone on, but when I quit I never looked back. I have everything I want.

Unlike so many women, she’d resisted Botox or having any other work done, and Mr. Original wondered why he hadn’t made a play for her when they were young. None of them had. She always had a boyfriend. And was it too late now? Yes, it was. Married, she’d grown into herself, possessing a fullness and beauty she hadn’t had at 20 and 21 and 25, not even at 30. In those days her confidence and popularity seemed flighty and unearned, while Mr. Original shyly, somewhat reluctantly, somewhat gratefully found himself on the path to becoming a corporate bureaucrat, a husband, a father, telling himself the opportunity to be more would come. And in a way it had. He sat on boards, his expertise was in demand, he was in a position to make meaningful donations to causes. Maybe she had a cause he could help.

It’s really good to see you, Mr. Original said, and Runway, who sat at the head of the table to his left, spoke around him to Happy. He’s having regrets and thinks you’re the answer.

Red leered sarcastically at Happy. Poor Mr. O!

Happy replied mildly, I always had a thing for him. She said it without thinking—her sense of justice, diminishing the bully by bestowing favor on the prey. Red liked it but would have liked it more if she insulted him outright.

Ohhhh, Maestro enthused. The way she says that! The words say one thing, the sound another. She could be his first cousin or his aunt. Maestro wagged his hoary, frizzy-haired bush of a head and looked around like a demigod, pronouncing, But that’s who we are. The chosen family.

A pause ensued. He’d broken the intimacy of their banter with a sentimental note. They were self-made, each of them self-reliant, long ago discarding origins and childhood attachments. Don’t look at me like that, Maestro objected. He opened his hands, spread his arms wide to them. I mean, here we are.

We? Red sneered. There is no we. Just me. Me me me me me me. A cho-rus of me.

Exeter owlishly agreed. It’s true. It’s what we do—rub against each other with our me-ness.

Ack, Runway said. Gag. Really?!

Mr. Original struggled not to feel let down by Happy and the barbs that followed. But, he thought, I didn’t have a thing for her, did she really have one for me?

She was laughing with Runway, who was mocking Exeter’s me-ness. Or is it minus, Runway said.

Displeased by Exeter’s agreement, Red turned on him. I was wrong. There is no you. When you’re alone in a room, it’s empty.

Is that a metaphor? Exeter quipped. An epithet?

I’ll give you a metaphor and an epithet rolled into one, Red said. Absence of ugliness is worse than ugliness.

Exeter sniffed theatrically. That’s you. And anyway, you wouldn’t know. You’ve never been to my house. He wasn’t going to treat Red seriously.

Hopeless, Red said.

All right, Maestro conceded, wanting to turn the conversation. I take it back. We’re not the chosen family—more like a fated one who found ourselves together on an island. He gestured to the wall of windows looking out across the Hudson to the Palisades and the last red glow of sunset casting its aura across the cliffs, the silvery black river, and up into the night sky with stars indistinctly glimmering through the milky scrim made by the city lights’ reflection. They all turned to look.

Magnificent view, Mr. Original murmured. You must never tire of it.

Maestro circled a finger in the air, signaling the young waiter hired for the occasion to fill everyone’s glasses again. Maestro felt mellow and beyond the touch of any discord, harm, or ruin. There were no shades or curtains on his west-facing windows as there was no one to see in, only the unimpeded view across the river and all the way up to the GW Bridge and Fort Lee. Maestro had earned his aerie, and he was secure and happy to have briefly drawn about him the others who’d ventured their young lives on the city. His disposition was generous, and having sought the self in therapy without finding finality or resolution, he thought he understood the selves of the others, their impulses and vulnerabilities, their best and worst, and perhaps he did, or perhaps he only needed them gathered to confirm belief itself.


Through the open windows came a light breeze, the hot August day yielding to cool night air, the ebb and flow of cars along the parkway sounding like surf. The waiter poured and cleared, retreating to the kitchen, where the hired chef, Cherie, was brewing French roast and setting out chocolate pots de crème on the granite countertop of the island. Not here, she said sharply. Put it over by the sink. She’d worked with Ryan once before and liked his young pretty-boy looks—the strong jaw, the good eyes and hair, he showed out well, clients liked that—he was an actor, of course, so far with walk-on parts in Billions and Mozart in the Jungle. She was a wan, blue-eyed brunette—compact, sensitive, and introverted, supporting herself as a caterer while writing lyrics for a musical she imagined based on Tolstoy and his wife. Maestro had told her that if her lyrics were good enough, he’d help her find a composer. So far she didn’t have anything she liked well enough to show him. But soon. She worked on it late at night when she was wired from catering and couldn’t sleep. The romance and fathomless torment of the Tolstoy marriage compelled her.

Ryan leaned back against the sink and admired her exactness in putting small rosettes of whipped cream and tiny sprigs of mint on the desserts. How long have you been doing this? he said.

Cherie pinched two leaves from a mint stem and said archly, You hope you won’t be doing this for long?

It’s easy enough, he reasoned. I enjoy it.

Good, she said. I can use you. Plenty more work, if you want it.

Sure, Ryan said. Thanks. Should I take those out now?

Wait a bit. They’re not in a rush. Bursts of jagged conversation and excessive laughter could be heard from the dining room.

Ryan shifted restlessly.

It’s kind of sad, he said.

What is? she said.

The old guy whose place this is. I mean, he scores soaps. Can you imagine?

I can, she said and added ironically, Maybe he can get you an audition.

You think? Ryan said.

You’re made for it, she said. The dashing young lover of the old doyenne married to the comatose banker. But you really do love her.

Thanks a lot, he said. I was thinking more along the lines of a witty, inveterate bachelor who saves his best friend from a blackmailer and in the process inadvertently meets the man he’s meant to marry.

Clever, she said and turned off the burner under the Bialetti.

So, he said, how long have you been doing this?

A few years, Cherie admitted. I started when I was at NYU. I was a marketing major and discovered I hated working in offices. I ended up with thirty thousand in student loans, and if I had it to do over again, I’d skip college. Everything useful I know I taught myself. She set a half dozen porcelain demitasses on a black lacquered wooden tray. You can take all this out in a minute. Desserts first, then coffee. Don’t forget the cream and sugar. … So what’s your story?

Silver spoon, he said. My parents put me through USC. But I’m on my own here. Only way I’ll know if I can do it.

Commendable, she said.

You’re mocking me, he said.

No. I mean it. I respect it. My father’s a philosophy professor. His father was a plumber who always said that people who work with their hands are more capable than those who don’t. He wouldn’t put my father through school, and my father wouldn’t put me through. I used to resent it.

Yeah, I get that, Ryan said. My parents are first generation. They’ve done well, and I try not to take it for granted. Thing is, they want to give me what they didn’t have.

Expectations, Cherie said. My kid won’t have to live out mine.

You have a kid? Ryan said.

No. I mean if I ever do. Her face closed with a hint of bitterness and fear. Her last boyfriend told her she wasn’t intellectual enough, then left her for a beauty pageant winner—Miss New Jersey.

My parents didn’t want me to be an actor, Ryan said.

What did they want?

Ryan grinned and crossed himself. A priest.

So maybe you’ll get a role playing one.

Awww, Ryan said. Come on, there’s no good priest roles. No fun except Friar Tuck. But I lack the girth.

Okay, off you go. She gestured at the dining room, and out he went through the swinging door, bearing the tray of desserts.

Ah, Jason! Maestro exclaimed. Excellent. Now—

It’s Ryan, sir.

Yes, of course, sorry. Maestro proceeded to offer his guests port, cognac, whiskey, more wine, anything they wanted with coffee and dessert. In the old days their parties went late, and this party was in honor of the old days. Time would not diminish their revelry, their stamina, their glowing commitment to life’s pleasures earned. Work hard, play hard. They paid their dues. From the inside pocket of his disheveled poplin suit, Red brought forth a fat joint rolled in shiny red cigarette paper, his signature touch—a flourish he’d been saving like a grand entrance to the party.

Ahhhhhhh, Maestro intoned deeply, Red! I knew I could count on your decadence.

Red scowled. Call it what you like. But he was pleased to have their attention. He took his time smoothing the joint, drawing it between his stubby thumb and forefinger, from one end of the shiny red joint to the other, and then again, pinching one end and holding it erect in front of his face, a jeweler examining his gem, pausing to say, I took a risk bringing it. Perfectly legal where I live but not so much here. FedExed it to myself at the hotel. And with a deliberation almost erotic, he put the joint between his lips, produced a box of matchsticks, carefully chose one, made a broad stroke striking it, watched it flare, lit the joint, took a long sipping inhale, shook the match out, squinted, holding his breath, exhaled an extravagant plume … and they watched, a wavering filament of anticipation and memory running through them, as Red took his time smoking the joint halfway down, flicking ash into the saucer of his demitasse, scattering small embers of pot that burned into Maestro’s white linen tablecloth. Red pressed his fingers to Maestro’s, passing the joint, as of old, and their eyes met frankly for the first time that evening, over something shared, an unequivocal giving and receiving. Red wasn’t worried. He had several more in his pocket.

Serving them, listening to their tattered conversations, Ryan didn’t see anyone or anything he wished to become, yet he despaired of ever reaching the shore of their self-assurance and satisfaction. Keenly uncertain, he resented comparing himself to them. He wanted to believe he was better than envy, more generous and destined for success on his own terms, whatever his station in life turned out to be. Meanwhile, he improvised.

Runway took light hold of his wrist as he set a snifter of Pappy 23 by her coffee cup. Maybe later, she said, you’ll give us a song? She smiled showing the attractive little gap between her top front teeth.

He doesn’t sing, Red said.

Of course he does and dances too, don’t you? Runway said.

Ryan blushed.

See? Runway said.

Happy’s hands sprang together in a quick clap. Oh, look! That’s so nice, he’s blushing.

Mr. Original wondered if he was still capable of blushing—he couldn’t recall the last time he had. He passed the joint to Runway.

She coaxed Ryan teasingly, What’s your repertoire? Rent? Angels? Oklahoma?

Cole Porter, Noel Coward more my thing. Ryan moved around the table, pouring water.

Leave him alone, Red said, lighting another joint. He’s not being paid to sing.

I don’t mind, Ryan said. Let me finish up serving, and I’ll sing for you. Why not? He looked to Maestro, who gestured at the wide doorway into the living room where the shiny black rear end of a grand piano showed. We’ll go there when you’re ready. No hurry.

Ryan nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.

Maestro clinked his spoon against his glass and said ceremoniously, Now it’s time to remember our friend Sparrow.

Red got quickly to his feet, pushing one hand flat on the table to steady himself. Let me—

Maestro cut him off. Let’s go around the table and each take a turn, shall we, with a memory or a tribute. What do you say? Happy, you first and we’ll go around.

Red dropped back into his seat, which creaked with his sudden weight. The chair was a Louis Quatorze, and Maestro barely restrained himself from saying something.

Happy said, I’ve been thinking about him, of course. Her throat closed. She covered her face with her hands. I’m sorry, she said. She breathed and tried to start again, lifting her chin. Mr. Original clasped her hand and took Runway’s hand, as well. She reached for Exeter’s hand, and Maestro took Happy’s free hand and extended one to Red as Exeter did the same. Kum-ba-ya, Red said, reluctantly putting his hands in theirs. Happy exhaled a wincing breath that ran like low voltage through them, and they sat slightly embarrassed, slightly relieved, each of them softened. From behind Exeter’s round spectacles a sentimental tear slid. Red looked down at his empty pot de crème. Without pretense the others regarded each other. Happy squeezed hands, and let go, and they all let go.

Happy said, That first year we all lived on 87th Street, Sparrow saw me working double shifts at that restaurant on Amsterdam, and all he said was, You’re exhausted. He said it offhandedly, and we didn’t talk about it. Later, when I went to the financial aid office to see what I could arrange, my bill was already paid. I’d been thinking about giving up. I might have given up. I was just so tired—

Mr. Original interrupted. But you always made things look so easy!

Phht, Runway said, you know better than that.

Happy shook her head. He wouldn’t let me pay him back. He said I was going to make a great lawyer. She raised her glass, and Red cut in, How much was Fordham back then? A few thousand?

That’s not the point, Maestro said.

Chivalry? Red said.

Generosity, Happy said. Kindness. Modesty. She raised her glass higher. To Sparrow—he asked little and gave a lot.

Here, here, Mr. Original said, and they drank.

Red lit another joint and passed it to Exeter, who said, Enough. You’ve done your damage.

Phillip? Maestro said, and they all looked at Mr. Original.

Okay, my turn, Mr. Original said, though what I remember doesn’t reflect that well on me. Then Mr. Original told how Sparrow took him to a Yankees-Red Sox game. The Yankees won, and afterward in the crowd leaving the stadium a drunken Red Sox fan slammed into Mr. Original as if by accident. Mr. Original cursed him, and the Sox fan squared off. Sparrow stepped in, he and the drunk baiting each other, sizing each other up, the drunk backing down, puffing his chest, trying to save face, and then Mr. Original got brave and added insults, inciting the drunk’s friend to step in, so now Sparrow had to face down two of them because Mr. Original would have been useless in a fight. Sparrow managed a standoff by backing down some himself. Telling about it, Mr. Original looked chagrined. Sparrow was pissed that I didn’t know enough to keep my mouth shut, Mr. Original said. On the subway home, he didn’t speak to me, and after that, I don’t think he ever felt the same about me. He was so smart, such an intellectual—Chomsky, Derrida, all that stuff he used to talk about—that I’d never thought of him as being very physical. And for a rich guy, he really had some street smarts.

You’re a rich guy now, Exeter said.

We’re all rich guys now, Mr. Original said. But back then only Sparrow and Red were.

Red’s eyes cut warily left and right. He was touchy about money. Sparrow had been by far the wealthiest, heir to an insurance business fortune, and Red didn’t like to be reminded.

Money’s just money, Maestro said. It’s what you do with it. Sparrow left his to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.

Saint Sparrow, Red said.

Ryan was going in and out unobtrusively clearing the table. Did they still want him to sing?

We’re lucky, Runway said. We were born in the right place at the right time. The generation ahead of us was getting off the stage, making room for us, a lot quicker than we’re getting out of the way of kids today. I don’t really have anything much to say about Sparrow, she said. I didn’t know him that well, though he was around all the time. I mean he was vanilla. Her gaze moved across Happy, Mr. Original, and Exeter. Vanilla, vanilla, vanilla, she said and chuckled. I like vanilla, but Sparrow—she paused—was so private, a secret self. You couldn’t get close. He asked me to take him to a party once. He had some idea for a book, and he knew there’d be writers and publishing people there. So we went and it wasn’t what he thought, not some erudite academic thing. It was at someone’s little crowded apartment off Broadway in the 50s, and everyone was doing coke except Sparrow. He was standing off in a corner with his hands in his pockets, looking uncomfortable, no one to talk to. I’m surprised he stayed, but maybe he was waiting for me, you know. Anyway, the crowd thinned out, it was getting late, and a woman ran out of the bedroom shouting that someone had stolen her coke. All the coats were piled on the bed and she’d had a big chunk of coke in a baggie in her coat pocket. The empty baggie with a little white dust in it was lying on the bed. There were about a half dozen of us still there—that poet with the painted leather jacket, an Australian novelist, a couple of editors from Vogue and Viking—everyone knew each other except Sparrow, and everyone was looking at him. We all sat down in the bedroom, not saying much, no one wanted to be the first to leave.

Exeter interrupted. Do you think he took it?

Runway shrugged. I only know I didn’t. We sat there what seemed a long time. No accusations, no denials, while the woman who lost her coke kept lamenting over what happened to it, and everyone else echoed her. Finally Sparrow said, Well, how much was it worth? Let’s all chip in. And that broke things up. The woman wouldn’t take money, not that anyone else really wanted to chip in. I think Sparrow knew that.

What’s your point? Red said.

Runway gave him a slow look of disregard. When we left, Sparrow wouldn’t talk about it, as if it never happened. What did he think? How did he feel? What did I? He didn’t want to hear it. Nothing. Nada. It was unnatural. I mean they all suspected him.

Happy said, I’m sure he was disappointed. He was such an idealist.

Whatever it was, Red said, he never wrote that book. What Red meant was that he’d written his book—a well-regarded study of the tech business in the 1990s. All the attention to Sparrow was making Red lose track of what he’d planned to say, or maybe it was the pot. He felt a little dizzy, but so what? He often felt dizzy.

Exeter said some words about Sparrow that Red didn’t fully catch—something about tourists coming up to Sparrow in restaurants mistaking him for Rob Lowe or Robert Downey. Robert something.

Stupid, Red said.

What? Exeter said.

Tourists, Red said.

Sparrow was a lovely man, Happy said.

Maestro agreed. He looked like a somebody.

Red got to his feet to deliver his toast. He’d meant to laud Sparrow’s altruism, his philanthropy, with a subtly woven we come to praise him not to bury him irony, but Red’s carefully prepared phrases escaped him, leaving an absence into which the unexpected came. We were friends, he said simply. He stood slightly swaying.

So what happened between you two? Exeter said. We’ve all wondered.

Nothing, Red said. He couldn’t recall the exact sequence of misunderstanding, only the feeling of offense. Had he asked Sparrow to invest in a startup? Had Sparrow asked him to donate to a hospital? Had Sparrow called him a philistine? Had he called Sparrow a dilettante? They stared at him, waiting, their faces amber and warm, loving him, or were they stricken by his ugliness? He fixed on Maestro, whose large head evoked an image of someone else. Diaghilev, he said.

Diaghilev? Maestro asked.

That’s who you wanted to be, Red said.

Not me. Maestro laughed and said, He died at 57, broke and covered in abscessed boils.

Inwardly Red reeled. What was he thinking? I want … I want …

Ryan came into the room, ready to play and sing for them, and stood uncertainly by Maestro, who rose, gently taking Red’s elbow, and said, Let’s go into the other room and listen to this young man perform.

Cherie in her white chef’s coat came out from the kitchen and stood, leaning against the living room door jamb as the others settled into the sofa and chairs around the piano.

Ryan lightly touched the keys and played a couple of bars of a hymn from his childhood, just to get the feel of the piano.

I know that one, Exeter said. How do the words go? But Ryan had already shifted into Noël Coward’s “Why Must the Show Go On?” The song was perfect for Ryan’s voice and for the occasion, and Maestro guessed Ryan knew what he was doing when he chose it. The sound from his lips was pure and clear, and he let himself go, perfectly touching Coward’s camp intonations, his cosmopolitan lilt of vaudeville and cabaret. Maestro and his guests laughed at the lyric sendup of theatrical suffering and joined Ryan on the refrain. He looked out the windows into the dark night and across the river to the twinkling lights of New Jersey, and for the few minutes the song lasted, he felt sure and happy to be exactly where he was, as he was, and, hearing him, his audience felt joyful. Red sang drunkenly, harshly with the others. Cherie tapped her foot in time. Ryan’s voice rose and then dropped matter-of-factly on the last words, turning the question to a statement. The show really can’t but must.

Go on.

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