by Thomas McCafferty
Harry Granderson poured himself a glass of Plymouth gin and offered me another one. We were in his office, looking out the window of a ninth floor in Midtown. It was an April morning. Below us, a tunnel came out of the ground onto Park Avenue at the intersection with 33rd Street. I still had two Army duffles with me, packed with clothes and knives and pans. I’d just arrived from Penn Station and hadn’t showered for three days. It was ten a.m., but I accepted the drink.
“You must have seen it,” he said.
He was young for the editor of a magazine, about thirty. I couldn’t help noticing that we looked similar in build and face, but his hair stayed clean along his skull where mine is messy, and he had an easy smile that gave him a humble appearance though he was not a humble man.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“A man got hit. Got hit crossing the damn street. A car came out of the tunnel. I never get used to it, but I see it ten times a year. In the mornings, I watch for it.”
Cars and people moved across the pavement in the sunlight. Vendors were on the sidewalks. A crowd pushed out of the stairs that led from the subway, and none of it fit with the scene he’d described. He poured us the rest of the gin, and then he left the window and placed the empty bottle in a line with others on the top of his bookcase, which held only magazines. He pulled a ream off the middle shelf.
“The people here are so blubbering and tired,” he said. “There’s a difference between a tired man and an old man, and there are old men that I love, but I have no patience for tired men. And magazines I treat the same.”
He handed me the stack, a year’s issues of Charbon and Bon Appetite, the top food magazine in the country. He told me to read all of them, see what had been done, and make sure that Charbon never repeated itself or its competitor.
My name is Michael Hart. My background isn’t very important to this story, except that I cooked briefly on the line for the Black Mackerel in Key West when I was twenty-two. I had a romantic, masculine ideal of being a chef, which ended when I cut off the tip of my left index finger while slicing bread. I realized I was better suited for a more domestic if not economically prudent career in writing. For several years, I sent out stories without success and waited tables to keep up a living. I hadn’t intended to be a magazine editor, but when I submitted an article about killing and stewing rabbits to Charbon, Harry offered me a job. The article, he said, could not run, but it showed enthusiasm and an understanding of English that would revitalize the magazine. Now I believe he brought me more for himself.
After two months researching, conducting interviews, writing sidebars, and most of all acting as Harry’s assistant—mimetic work that I thought of increasingly as an apprenticeship—he asked if I had weekend plans. In fact, I was taking Michelle, the girl I’d been seeing, to a French bistro near my apartment in Park Slope that Saturday. Harry himself had pointed out the restaurant, Moutarde, when I first moved to the neighborhood. He’d helped me find my place.
Now he said, “God himself considers Moutarde shit—I’m personally not so harsh.”
“But surely,” I said, “the mustard.”
We were walking on 3rd Avenue, coming back from lunch at Turkish Kitchen. A girl who said she was from Istanbul had been our waitress. She spoke pigeon English and blushed when she talked so that she looked almost American. I was wishing that she was the girl coming with me to Moutarde, the girl I had to change plans with now, as Harry explained that we would roast a pig in Prospect Park because that was one damn place that had grills, by God. You could barbecue, and the mothers walking their prams, and the rich New Yorkers on their skates and goddamn horses would smell the meat, and the dogs would smell it, and the beautiful girls who weren’t too virtuous would smell it and love it.
“I’ll bring my wife,” he added. “She’s been wanting to meet you, and you’ll love her. I don’t suppose you’ve ever been married.”
“I haven’t been.”
“Someday you will be, Mike. I talk about you all the damn time.”
We stopped at a crosswalk and waited for the lights to turn and for the drivers that always ran through late to pass. Many New Yorkers hurry through the city, but Harry moved with a sort of intense leisure, walking slowly but talking expansively. As we crossed the street, the air was rich with the smells of hotdogs and exhaust.
“I used to treat marriage like a party,” he said. “I told people about fucking and dating and drinking with my wife. But I couldn’t keep wanting those things without becoming tired. People talk about growing and moving forward, but at a certain point, Mike, it’s bullshit. You change out of necessity because anything else is tedious, but the movement is lateral. It takes so long to see yourself with any clarity, and then it’s just a matter of judging yourself from different perspectives. That’s how I’m looking at it, at myself and Rebecca, these days. I can’t wait for you both to meet.”
Of all mammal and bird meat, pig is the best by taste. And for two dollars a pound. The boned shoulder of a pig tied with a lattice, marinated, grilled, wrapped tightly with foil, then baked will fall apart after about four hours. This pulled pork tastes better than all of the French preparations of duck in Gastronomique or Guide Culinaire or any of the other great cooking bibles. And the only way to improve the meat is to roast it over coals in its own skin, butterflied between grates, or lashed head, foot, and spine to a spit. The spit preparation takes about twenty hours if the pig marinates overnight, and that of course is what Harry wanted. “Think of it as very long foreplay,” he said.
Our pig weighed forty pounds dressed, which made it twice the size of a suckling but young enough still to be tender and sweet. On that first night, Harry and I carried it from his truck to a wide patch of dirt under a maple tree where there was a grill and a table. I scraped the last hairs off its skin that the butcher had missed. The skin was cool, the smell deep and salty. Michelle set out folding chairs, and Harry and his wife Rebecca brought coolers of ice. Then Rebecca and I painted the hide and body cavity with a vinegar and oil marinade that she said was hot but not sugary. Sugars would have burned. She was a chef who worked summers on Cape Cod. I could see the muscles in her arms as she worked, and her calm, efficient movement showed skill that I’d never had in a kitchen. When we finished, we covered the pig with frozen water jugs and bags of ice, then wrapped it in a tarp, as if it were a body that we were hiding from the flies until an ambulance could take it. I poured water through my hands and wiped my neck and arms until the blood was gone and I could only smell the vinegar. Then we passed around cans of beer.
“I’ve reached an understanding with morality,” Harry was saying. He stood behind Rebecca, his hands on her shoulders. “Morality is this woman. It’s simple because anything I do for her is right and moral, if you like.”
“He tries to be endearing,” she said. “But he’s really a bastard.”
“Mike is more of an ass.” Michelle wore an impossibly thin white hat with a round brim that shaded her pale and freckled face. The girls seemed to enjoy themselves, and I felt good and relaxed because of it. I’d wondered how Michelle would handle meeting Harry, and neither of us had met Rebecca before.
“It’s not that I disagree with him,” Rebecca explained. She had on a button shirt that she hadn’t tucked in—it came over her shorts and made it look as if she were only in underwear. “But he’s not very moral by his own judgment.”
“She’s just sour about me killing her dog. It’s all right. It’s a good excuse, anyway.”
“You killed her dog?” Michelle asked. “What kind?”
“Well, a bitch. What other kind is there?”
“You see, he really is a bastard. It was a Border collie, and he backed right over it.”
“I was perhaps less than sober. But I tried to make it up to her. I did buy her a mink.”
“It’s a used coat.”
“It was a used dog. And that was three years ago.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “Let’s talk about minks.” I wanted to change the subject, and I’d always been curious about going to Russia and setting out trap lines through Siberia for mink and ermine and sable, a topic that lent itself further to discussing tigers and the poachers who were crossing the boarder from China, killing them, and selling their hides and teeth and testicles on the black market. We could only see each other in the lamplight now, and my beer felt empty. I opened the cooler and passed out new cans, and we had several more rounds while getting into Russian history before Rebecca brought up the dogs again.
“Border collies are my favorites.” She had crossed her legs and was leaning forward, staring at the tarp. “They’re worth a hell of a lot more than a coat.”
Michelle started laughing. “I like bloodhounds best,” she said.
“To hell with bloodhounds.”
We were all very drunk, and I helped Michelle stand and wrapped my shirt around her shoulders.
“You shouldn’t go.” Harry was smiling in his easy way. He popped another beer.
“I’m sorry. I’ll see you tomorrow, though? Very good. I will.” I took Michelle’s hand and we began walking. I didn’t like leaving him, but I knew that in the morning I could say I’d just been too tired and full of beer, and besides he’d been fighting with his wife. As we left, we listened to Rebecca apologizing, nearly shouting. But I couldn’t tell if she was speaking to Harry or calling after us.
“They’re both very crazy,” Michelle whispered. She let me put my arm around her, and she said she wouldn’t let me pay for a cab, though I didn’t offer to get her one, and she said how funny it was that she was Jewish, though she didn’t practice, but here I was cooking her a pig. We went to my apartment and her feet slapped the floor when she got us water from the sink. I knew my neighbors would hear her. I was at least that aware before taking her to bed.
Harry once told me, “I majored in European history, but history never got me laid. Beef consommé has been a surer friend.” It was through cooking that he met Rebecca. They were in Providence where he studied at Brown University and she was at the Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts. When he served filet mignon under a red béarnaise that he’d overheated, so that the egg had cooked and become granulated, she told him it was shit. “That’s when I knew I’d have to marry her,” he said.
I was thinking about them when I found him the next morning, lying on the ground beside the tarp. He looked sober. I didn’t see the truck.
“You didn’t let her drive?” I asked.
“She can be damned stubborn.”
“Is she all right?”
“She’s at home. And if she’s not, I still wouldn’t let her spoil my roast.”
I explained that Michelle couldn’t come that day. She had to meet someone at MOMA, to see the Rothkos.
“Do you know what’s crazy, Mike? A man, when he’s with his lover, is safe. You dismiss him. But solitary men in any situation are men whose motives are in doubt at best. Maybe I’m too sexually minded, though I don’t think a man can be and I don’t mean to sound cynical. I’m not feeling well.”
“You must be dehydrated. Lord knows I am.”
“No, I have a pain from where I lay on a root. A supernova in my liver. One of those pains that makes you think of cirrhosis even when you’re in good health.”
“I worry more about rent.”
“How was Michelle? I’ll be honest, she didn’t look like much. But I’ve been with girls who didn’t look like much and you can just never tell.”
“She said she had a good time.”
“Michael, at least you tried her. You never know truly until you try. That advice, my friend, is in my heart. When I was young, I said Harry you must try them thick, short, all of it. You can’t understand until then. That’s how I looked at it, and I mean drunk out in the morning with giant asses and stick anorexics and the beautiful girls too. But you’re always chasing the beautiful ones.”
“And somehow you stay married.”
“I’m feeling hungry. I wanted to eat, but I thought I’d be noble and see you first.”
“God yes. You don’t know how I’ve been waiting and thinking when will Mike get here because I need some goddamn breakfast. And why did you leave last night? Not because you couldn’t stand me. No, it had better have been her. Because of her and her marvelous ass. Another miracle. By God, Michael. Two in one morning. Signs of the Father.”
I yawned, smelling the sweet stink and sweat on my face. I hadn’t showered.
“Mike, tonight I want you to get to know my wife. I tell her so much about you, but we got off on the wrong line about those dogs.”
“She’s a beautiful woman.”
“She is, yes. I knew you’d think so.”
We decided that I would stay with the pig while Harry brought us muffins from a bakery on 7th Avenue. As he went through the park, he turned his head and watched the joggers pass, judging either their bodies or form in the sense of technique, or both. It reminded me of a trip I’d made once to the Oregon coast where I camped in the big woods. Mornings, I’d hike to the dunes and watch the sun hit the ocean, and one day I saw a man on the shoreline beside a young girl who was playing in the surf. He followed her as she moved up the beach, laughing and running, and I thought he must have been her father. Then a woman holding her swim top rushed across the sand and scooped up the girl, talking harshly to her and to the man. I wondered whether he’d desired the girl or if he’d only been concerned that a child was playing alone in the water.
I touched the tarp with my hands. It was still cool. When I pulled up an edge and looked inside, the reflective blue mesh shone on the pig and made it look like a surreal sculpture that had been glazed and fired in a kiln. That killed my appetite for a moment, which was just as well because when Harry came back he was grinning and carrying mimosas instead of food.
“It’s too hot for anything bready.” He handed me one of the drinks, then stripped off his shirt. He was a lean man. He had no hair on his torso front or back except at his nipples and armpits and leading down from his navel. “And you don’t want bread soaking up the alcohol.”
We drank, and Harry started talking about how the only great bread came from Paris. How could Catholics in any other country take communion? Surely the French had the greatest, sweetest notion of what the body of Christ must have been. “And wouldn’t it be strange, Mike, to serve Jesus bread? And what about the wine and fish? His own symbols? It seems like a perverse cannibalism, but they all taste too good. And the irony, Mike, the great irony is we could serve a pig even though the man was Jewish because the New Testament says forget the cleanliness bullshit.”
“But you never see him eat pork.”
“Yes,” Harry said. “The example is missing, isn’t it?”
“It’s good you’re not devout.”
“I’m not even Catholic, Mike. Sometimes I wish were.” He finished his drink then lay in the shade with his hands clasped behind his head. He told me he’d sleep easier now that someone was watching the pig for him. I’m not sure who would have stolen our uncooked swine, but I didn’t say anything. As he slept, sunlight moved across his body to his face, and I hung my shirt over a tree branch to keep it out of his eyes.
Rebecca came a while later with a beach bag on her shoulder. She said she preferred walking to driving. Unlike Harry or myself, she’d apparently changed clothes and bathed. She looked at my mimosa. “I’m sure you were both very beautiful drinking in the morning,” she said. “Lonely men have to drink?”
“I think it goes something like that, yes. What time is it?”
“Noon. Time for a pick me up?” She dug a pair of white-rimmed sunglasses out of her bag and plopped them on the bridge of her nose. They utterly dwarfed her face. She frowned, which her husband never did, and asked if I liked the glasses. I told her they were striking.
“Yes, of course they are. But how do I look in them? Harry’s never seen them on me and I want to know.”
“You look good,” I said. “You look young.”
She knelt beside him, pulling up her skirt so that only her knees touched the ground. She kissed each of his eyes, and he took her face in his hands then rolled forward and sat on his butt with his legs stretched out and his shoulders slouched. He yawned. I thought he looked a bit like a bear, tired and happy in the sun. “I need alcohol,” he said. “It’s summer, and we should have friends and booze and a fire. Shouldn’t we, Mike?”
“It’s spring,” I told him.
“What do you think of my new glasses? Mike says I look gorgeous and young in them. Like Michelle.”
“Does he really?”
“No, but that’s what I like to think. What do you think?”
“I think you’re far too good for me, whether you look twelve or thirty.” He got to his feet. “I want us all to be friends, and I want you and Mike to talk. But now I need him for his arms for the booze.”
“So I am the wife that watches the pig?”
“Unless you want to carry the beer.”
“No, no. You two men go and show me how strong you are.” She smiled coyly behind her sunglasses.
We walked into Park Slope and bought lagers, two thirty packs of Miller Lite, several California reds, Italian Proseccos, and a half liter bottle of sherry to pour over the pig when it was near done. The sherry would mix with the fat grease and fall in the fire and the flames would rise and scorch and caramelize the flesh. “And besides,” Harry said, “Rebecca enjoys sherry. I do love her, Mike. She’s hardly ever a bitch.”
“Anyone can be a bitch.”
“Listen to you talking grandly, Mike. You talk as if we’re brothers.”
We walked back sweating under the load and Harry for once not talking except to say that we would reward ourselves at the end, by God, by God, and he huffed the words under his breath as if they could invigorate his arms.
In the park, we found Rebecca in the sun. She’d moved her chair to tan. She said she enjoyed watching the people playing softball far down the path, the men hitting and running like children. Harry and I built miniature tripod tepees for the spit using eight-foot steel poles, lashing them with rope, but we didn’t have enough rope so we took off our belts and used them, too. I rolled up my waistband to keep my slacks from falling off my hips; Harry’s jeans were tight and needed no adjustments. We placed one tepee on either side of the grill and put a last single pole across, checking the distance and the height. Then Harry ignited the coals while I carried the pole to the pig and began tying them together then wiring the spine to the pole. Harry helped me fill the gut with an apple stuffing and staple the skin to hold it. By the time we’d lifted pig and pole over the hot grill and made cuts in the hide so that the fat would melt, some of the Grandersons’ friends had arrived.
Harry introduced me: “This is Mike. I discovered him, and someday he’ll be an editor—I’ll stake money on it if you’ll take my credit. He’ll run a damn magazine.”
They clustered around him, laughing and listening to him cuss and sing, watching him drink, and I escaped to a chair and drank. All of Rebecca’s friends looked old, and I got to thinking that it’s hard to know anyone’s age but the people who are your own. The Grandersons were the only ones wearing wedding bands. Strangers walking through sometimes paused, watching us and smelling the air, the smoke, the roast, and the beer. In the evening, we moved the pig off the grill and spread it out on the table over a tarp. Everyone took turns pulling off the flesh with tongs and putting meat on paper plates. Rebecca and I sat next to each other. I had a fatty belly slice that wanted more salt. We talked about salt and about the ocean and about iodine. Then she asked what I thought of Michelle and of the other girls there.
“I think they’re lovely,” I said. “You particularly. And what do you think of the other men?”
“You know I’ve only been with one man in the last decade. A decade, Michael. Isn’t that funny?”
“I think the beer is hitting us.”
“I’ve had not that many beers, really. It’s just that men don’t like hearing things that are true.”
“That’s unfair,” I said. “I want to hear anything you say.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I think we’ve had a lot of beer.” We’d been eating the pig with our hands, and I was enjoying licking the fat and marinade off my fingers.
“I’m sorry I talked so much about the dogs last night,” she said. “That dog and Harry were too much, both of them. It’s just that sometimes I think he meant to. He’s a very deliberate man. Not everyone realizes that.”
“He’s lucky you put up with him.”
“We’re lucky that you do. We’re both very happy that you’re here—he hated the magazine before you.”
As we ate, the number of people attending the party grew. We were supposed to have a permit for over twenty, but at least forty came. I was happy to have so many. A spotless carcass is easier to clean up than a half eaten one. I managed to save a pound of meat, though, before all of it disappeared. I said it was for Michelle, but I think I did it more to show Rebecca how good I could be to a woman.
From Memorial Day to the turning of the weather in October, Rebecca ran the kitchen at Maera’s, the restaurant on Cape Cod that she co-owned with the maître d’. Twice, Harry brought Michelle and I to visit, driving us out in his truck, crammed three in a row across the bench, laughing and bullshitting, the stickshift between Michelle’s legs. When the traffic got slow and deadlocked in front of the Sagamore Bridge on Route Six, we’d roll down the windows and sing with the radio. We didn’t always know the words.
I fished along the ocean shore of the cape for striped bass. But we didn’t make our first trip until July, and the stripers had already run through. I’d haul my tackle to the beaches before dawn, and they would all tease me when I came back fishless. I told them not to worry—we’d hit it earlier next season. And I’d talk to Rebecca about searing fish and baking them, or anything at all, just to talk to her. I spent as much time with her as I could.
In New York, Harry and I became particular friends, a rarity in the magazine business where people leave for better jobs frequently. He promoted me to executive editor, which was a title I didn’t deserve, but I carried a smaller price tag than the man I was replacing and that made good sense at a time when the economy was shit and keeping a magazine afloat was difficult. We worked sixty or seventy hours a week when issues had to ship—and we began imitating the lifestyles of the chefs we profiled and glorified each month, searching out the late night restaurants, bars, and clubs in Manhattan, and winding up in pastry shops or diners at four a.m. in Greenwich Village or Chelsea. When Michelle didn’t join us, Harry was a beautiful roaring drunk of a man with an exacting and boisterous command of his words. He was happy, flirting with waitresses and the women at the bars and the girls waiting out front for taxis, but he never took off his wedding band and he never stopped talking about his wife. I’d seen other men with the same habit who felt guilt, but Harry was boasting. He couldn’t help talking about her, just as he couldn’t help hailing cabs at three in the morning with a waif or a beauty or a nightmare of rouge and heavy breasts under his arm.
In early October, we were in the West Village at Little Branch where the bartender wore a suit vest and a clip on his tie, and the waitresses looked like flappers who only knew how to wear black. A piano sprawled out in the middle of the room, which was dim and lit with candles. Young Manhattanites whispered around us, and the drink menu listed Queens Park Swizzles and other concoctions with brilliant names and, we learned, not quite brilliant flavors.
“Cocktails,” Harry said. “You can pay five dollars or fifty, but they only get so good. A cocktail is not a wine and it’s not chateaubriand. People are getting famous mixing drinks. It’s fatuous. And that’s sort of how I feel about Michelle. I see less in her as I know her better. She’s that publicist’s ease with talking, but so little substance. There are better women.”
“There are women like Rebecca, and there are women like her.” He raised his chin.
A girl was bustling past the piano with a loaded cocktail tray. She had strong legs that made her look like she played tennis.
“Mike, a lot of men never lay a waitress. They look at her and think they have no chance. She doesn’t need you to be another guy after her. But you’re worth more than them, and that’s a rich advantage. Only if you go up to her. But in the end she’ll ask me home because you won’t even talk to her.”
“Do you tell your wife about your girls?”
“She doesn’t care about them, Mike. She’s the best of course. When I met her, I knew I couldn’t lose her. I still can’t. I wouldn’t be the same man. I tell her everything. I tell her she should see guys on the Cape. She doesn’t. I tell her that she should see you.”
I sipped my drink but did not know how to answer him. We were sitting next to each other, watching the room. He put his hand on mine and pressed it against the table. He wore cufflinks that showed lions on them in the style you see on English flags.
“You masquerade with Michelle.” He moved his head close to mine. His breath smelled of alcohol and it was hot on my cheek. “I am at least honest about what and whom I want.”
A man sat down at the piano and began to play a Ray Charles song. I sipped my drink and listened. When I was finished, I told Harry that I had to leave.
“You look like livestock before it’s slaughtered,” he told me. “You should smile, Mike.”
I gave him money for my drink, then climbed the stairs and took the A train to 96th Street where all of the roads are wide and the neighborhood loses any feeling of intimacy. I walked to Columbus Avenue, to the building where Michelle lived, where she paid too much for a bed, bath, and kitchenette that were all in the same room. We used to talk about how we could watch television and cook and bathe at once. But we never had—we only got as close as sitting in the tub, watching pornography. She hadn’t enjoyed it, so we turned off the television. Now I had to leave her.
When Rebecca came back for the winter, Harry brought the three of us together at a rooftop party in Sunset Park. We were celebrating because fall had ended and it was one of the last warm days of the year. We could wear jeans and sweaters and still feel comfortable outside. The harbor stretched out below us. Manhattan looked small to the north. We were drinking bottles of Champagne without glasses, perhaps in the interest of saving dishes, and sitting on the ground and talking about the sailboats silhouetted on the water. The light was fading.
I kissed Rebecca, and she pulled away and looked embarrassed. Then she kissed me herself.
“It’s good to see that you’re not so damn shy anymore,” Harry said. He smiled, and we all drank the champagne, and I kept kissing her, and the night became cold. But we were drunk and we stayed.
Harry watched us for a long time. Finally, he told us to stop, as if he’d seen his fill of what he’d come for and we were no longer interesting.
She only laughed and kissed me again.
“I’m going inside,” he said.
The other guests were leaving. I listened to them chatting. They sounded happy and no one paid any attention to us except Harry, who hadn’t left after all. Finally he stood up and walked to the edge of roof with his Champagne bottle. Then he dropped it, and I listened to it break five floors down.
“To hell with both of you,” he said.
That was the first time I’d seen him angry, and though he apologized to me in the morning, our friendship had changed. When the three of us saw each other after that, Harry stayed close to his wife. He took her coat and ordered for her at dinner, and he stopped going to the bars after work. So when Esquire offered me a job in February, I took it. I didn’t like the idea of giving a damn for men’s fashion, which is an artificial obsession, but I couldn’t be so near him, working under him, every day.
For weeks afterward, I didn’t see the Grandersons. I bought new clothes and ate at new restaurants. I even asked out other women, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Rebecca and Harry. And so I arranged a lunch with him.
Harry looked small when I saw him, and thinner. His voice was softer when he spoke, and he laughed when he noticed that I was wearing a suit that fit me well. I tried to explain that you couldn’t tell people how to dress if you couldn’t dress yourself.
“No, Michael. You’re going straight to hell. And you look like a fag.”
“How’s the magazine?”
“Don’t goddamned ask that. You know it’s not as good without you, but let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk about fishing. I want you take me. I want you to get me one of those stripers you’re always talking about with my wife.”
We took the trip on Memorial Day weekend when we both had more time off from work, and when Rebecca was opening for the season. She had already been on the Cape for a week when Harry and I made the drive up the coast. We met her at her restaurant, Maera’s, which she’d named after herself. Maera was her first name, but she’d always gone by Rebecca. She was pounding dough on a wood countertop covered in flour when we arrived. She noticed me and smiled, and she kept working.
Their house was on the bay side of the Cape near Wellfleet. It overlooked Lieutenant’s Island, which could only technically be considered an island when the tide was high. When the tide was out, you could walk or drive there. The gulls would pick mussels out of the reeds and drop them on the road, scattering thousands of broken shells.
That first Friday night, the night before Maera’s would open, we all stayed up drinking wine. It was not good wine but it made conversation easier and I was happy to be with them again. After sharing two bottles, I said that I was going to sleep. I got up from the table and walked around behind Rebecca and Harry. I put a hand on each of their shoulders, kissed the top of her head, and then left.
No one talked about that in the morning. We ate bagels with cream cheese and smoked bluefish, which Rebecca had bought in town.
“Let’s go to the beach,” Harry said. He didn’t sound happy but his smile was beautiful, and we all acted as if everything were fine.
We drove north past Truro, then turned off the highway where a road leads through pine trees that are mangled because of growing in the wind and the salt air. At the end of the road there was a barn-shaped building that Rebecca said was a hostel. We parked before we reached it, and from there we hiked a mile through the dunes to a long white beach. The beachgoers were nude. Most were gay men, and Harry told a story about how a very large man, who may have been taking steroids because of the mass of his body and the pitch of his voice, had walked over to them. “You noticed him coming from a good distance, and speaking to him felt inevitable. He sat in the sand, huge and naked, and all of us pretending it was natural, and he spoke for a while with us both. I thought he was hitting on Rebecca and she thought he was hitting on me. It wasn’t until he’d left that we realized he’d been after both of us.”
We unrolled our towels on the sand then took off our clothes. Rebecca’s stomach was round below her navel, which looked healthy. The lines of her calves and her back were pronounced by shadows there in the early light. All of us were pale. I wished that Harry would leave, but I didn’t say it.
“I used to be very dark when I lived in the Keys,” I said. “You wouldn’t think so because I’m Irish, but I was like parchment. I was better looking, even when my arms were blistered. New York takes it out of you.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I used to feel alive there but it’s changed.”
“Do you think you’ll ever leave?” Rebecca asked.
“I want to move to Oregon. I’ve wanted to get back West for a long time. You’d like it. The redwoods there are big. Goddamn big.”
Harry bent forward and held his knees. He looked older and handsome in the light on the coast, which is crisper than the light in New York. He squinted out at the ocean. “What do we need for fishing?” he asked.
“I’ll check the rigs tonight,” I said. “And we can bring whiskey. The weather is not supposed to be good in the morning and it will keep us warmer.”
“Let’s not drink whiskey. My stomach doesn’t handle it the way it used. We’ll get some wine, though. Have we ever taken you to the vineyard?”
“I’ve seen it from the road.”
“It’s not bad. We’ll get some pinot gris.”
Rebecca said she wanted to swim. We watched her walk across the beach and then run into the cold water where the waves were strong.
Harry looked at himself then lay back in the sand, stretching out the way he had in the park.
I smelled the salt off the ocean and watched Rebecca swim.
“There’s nothing I didn’t share with you,” Harry said.
The winds were strong in the morning, knocking spray into our faces with the rain that came and went. The chop was high. We started fishing in the dark. We never saw the sun until we left at noon, and by then Harry was grinning. I’d let him keep his first striper, a ten-pounder. Neither of us had caught any truly big ones, but I’d had a good one on the line, and Harry had landed three.
“We were lucky with the weather,” I told him. “The bass love it.”
I showed him how to clean his fish in the surf, and explained how we’d cut the filets when we got back.
“I don’t know why we don’t fish more,” he said. He was as happy as I’d seen him since the fall.
But when we were driving he got quiet. We stopped at the house, and he told me that he loved his wife. He was looking ahead at the windshield and the water streaking across it. I could barely make out mosquitoes above the hood through the rain. “But I don’t want to be around her anymore, Mike. She’s the best woman I’ve ever known. I don’t understand. We should all have what we want. I’m sorry I’m talking like this.”
We still had a half bottle of wine. I uncorked it and drank, then passed it to him. It was cool in my throat.
“I’ll go back if you want me to,” I said.
“No, there’s no changing it. At least I know that much.” He wiped his mouth and told me he was just talking and that I should stay.
In the kitchen, I laid down New York Times newspapers and cut the filets and put them in the refrigerator. Then I drank a beer and showered. I stayed in the water for a long time to warm by body, and I bent forward to let it pound my back. When I’d finished and dressed, I found Harry in his room packing a bag. He said the publisher had called. He had to meet that night with the sales team from General Electric. They were thinking of pulling out from Charbon and they’d been his biggest advertiser.
“It’s a Saturday,” I said.
“It wouldn’t matter if it was Christmas.”
“What are you going to say?”
“I don’t know. You have to charm them as if they’re your brothers. You have to get their sons laid, if that’s what they want.”
“I’ll go with you on the drive.”
“No, you don’t need to do that. I’ll be back tomorrow, or with luck later tonight, by God. If I can get them—if I can fuck them, Mike. But it never happens that easily. We’ll all have to go out and be very drunk. When a man wants to be successful and he wants to be a drunk, he goes into sales.”
That night, I fried Harry’s fish in butter and lemon juice and finished it in the oven. I couldn’t let it go bad, and besides we could always catch more fish. The house was hot from cooking, and I took off my shirt and cracked another beer. We had no limes for the Corona because the Grandersons were purists, but it would do, and after finishing that one I opened another and headed out to porch with a plate of bass.
Rebecca didn’t come home until the sun was down. But I could make out the line of the horizon and the shape of the island, the dark line of the road. She took a seat next to me and picked at the rest of the bass on my plate.
“It’s good,” she said. “Did you catch it?”
“It’s Harry’s fish. I only helped land it and clean it. He had to go back.”
“I wished I’d been done sooner.” She came and sat in my lap. She was warm, and I felt the weight of her body on my thighs and the movement of her chest against mine as we breathed.
“Yesterday, you looked very good naked,” I said. “I watched you go out in the ocean and I wanted to join you.”
“You could have.”
I lifted her and she was heavy in my arms but I tried not to show it. Then we laughed and I set her on her feet. She finished the last of my Corona, and when I went to bed with her she smelled like me—like beer and cooked fish. We joked in the dark about how we were two very healthy striped bass finally together and spawning, and she said, “He used to be like this. He used to be able to have fun.”
In the morning, we stayed in bed late. A patch of sun cut across our feet, but the rest of the room was cool and dark. We’d had no word from Harry. We didn’t want to think about him too much, though, so at noon we left and walked over to the island. There was a deep hole of water on the northwest side where we stripped off our clothes and swam then dried naked in the sun. A man walking by looked at us for a minute but didn’t say anything. Rebecca laughed. I felt good, and only wished that we’d brought water because I was thirsty.
The island was about two miles in circumference. We walked around it, skirting the nesting grounds of grebes and cranes. On the far shore, giant rocks jutted out in bay and rivulets and tidal pools broke up the shoreline. A coyote trailed us for a few hundred yards, hanging back in the shadows of the trees.
“I wonder what he eats out here,” Rebecca said.
I wanted to tell her that he probably ate other people’s dogs, but I remembered that she didn’t like talking about dogs, so I didn’t say anything. When we got back to the house, she had to change for work. I watched her dress and she asked if I thought she was prettier than Michelle.
“No,” I said. “But I do care you for you an awful lot.”
“You don’t have to be too honest, Mike.”
“No, you’re wrong about that.”
The phone rang and I answered it. It was a man calling for Rebecca. He said that Harry had been killed.
As best I know, Harry was crossing Park Avenue when a Towncar struck him and crushed him against a divider in the middle of the road. The police said that it had been an accident and that it was not uncommon at that spot.
At the funeral, I spoke with the editorial and sales staffs from Charbon, and I spoke with my old publisher. He was at times gregarious or polite, but he only knew one way of thinking and that was business. He said he wanted me to write up Harry’s obituary for the magazine. And a week later, he called. I told him that the obit was going well—that I was putting together a piece about cooking with Harry in the summer. I asked about ad sales. He said they were picking up. He said I should interview for Harry’s old job.
“That’s very good to hear,” I told him. At that point I was living with Rebecca in her apartment, but she was getting ready to head back to the Cape to finish the season. I wanted to be with her, but I didn’t want to leave New York. “I do miss the magazine. I miss articles about food. You know, I think I’d be awfully damn good there.”
Photo and content © 2013 Thomas McCafferty
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