“Eight ball and six ball in the corner pockets,” said Oliver Graeme.
Harlan Mallory stared down at the yellow felt. The three balls formed a flat triangle at the far side of the table.
“On the contrary, dear boy. It’s a basic carom shot. You merely bounce the cue off the eight and into the six. Just like killing two birds with one stone, though I expect it’s rather more difficult to hit a pair of actual birds with a slingshot. The balls stay still and let you bash them about.”
Oliver walked the length of the table and with an audible exhalation of discomfort, folded himself over the edge, set his feet and pistoned a few practice strokes. A small crowd had started to gather around them, the local five dollar burger night crowd at Kitty Murtagh’s, entertained by the spectacle of their local celebrity being hustled by the frail, pasty Englishman.
Oliver straightened up again, chalked the tip of his cue, studied the angles. Then he set himself to the task. In one sharp smooth slide of the stick, Oliver worked the ricochet perfectly and both balls dropped into their assigned pockets, the eight a second after the six.
That cleared the table. The game was over. After a quick gasp of silence the small crowd broke into cheers and applause. Oliver pushed himself erect and took a small bow.
“You’ve been practicing,” Harlan said.
“Yes. On the archaic theory that it makes perfect.”
“He wiped the floor with you, Harlan,” said a familiar voice from behind him. He turned to face the wry smile and piercing blue eyes of Julia Copenhaver. He had successfully avoided her since their catastrophic evening together, driving on when he saw her green Austin Mini rag top at The Green, or parked by the split-fence at Sanford Farm, abandoning on the spot a much-needed cup of coffee or a hike to the ocean. It was impossible to avoid anyone on Nantucket forever, though -- especially in November. There just weren’t enough restaurants open.
The emotions swarmed and snarled him. Seeing her, he recalled running through his mother’s clotheslines, chased by bees, one August afternoon, pulling sheets and shirts and trousers off their pegs, in his headlong flailing sprint, festooned with sun warm fabric, stung and smothered.
Tonight he felt a similar tangle: embarrassed, awkward, angry at himself for his cowardice, annoyed with her, irked she had just watched him lose, puzzled by the sly smile on Oliver’s face; but also pleased to see her, relieved that she was still willing to talk to him: panicky as that twelve-year-old boy being chased through the clotheslines.
But the seventh grader would have been stricken mute; the sixty year-old man could at least keep his wits about him. “What’s a rich vegetarian doing at Kitty’s for five dollar burger night?” he asked her.
“I’m cheap. And vegetarianism was just a phase. Like going to the gym.”
“So you’re cheap and lazy?”
“But not boring and dumb – your other two horsemen of the apocalypse.”
“I have no recollection of telling you that.”
“I won’t judge you. I like drinking, too. Though you made the comment at a breakfast meeting, as I recall.”
“Bloodies. My downfall.”
“I stick with beer myself. They don’t over-charge for it here on bargain nights. Unlike most places. And they have Long trail IPA on draft.”
“Sounds good. Let me buy you one.”
“Actually, I’m with David tonight.” She half turned and extended her hand. A thick-set man with an unattractive goatee beard and a bad comb-over stepped forward hesitantly, as if into the presence of royalty. The body language was all-too familiar. If Harlan had been wearing a ring the guy would have kissed it.
“I love your work,” the little man said, predictably, shaking Harlan’s outstretched hand. “David Margolis.”
“I wish I could share your feelings,” Harlan said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Julia said. “You love your work. How many times have I watched you dig out some old canvas and say ‘that’s much better then I remembered.’?”
“But still not satisfactory. Most of the time I’d prefer to just burn the pictures when I’m through with them. Or send all the SUVs to the car wash.” He referenced that night, not exactly apologizing for it, ignoring her bulky escort, enjoying the man’s puzzled stare.
“I never got my dust-on-glass original,” Julia chided him.
He studied the pool table . “You’re right. I should take care of that.”
“No problem. I know you’re busy.”
Of course, she knew he wasn’t. Decorating his house, she’d become all too familiar with his schedule. She stepped around him now, and extended her hand to Oliver, towering over him. He drew himself up to his full five feet five inches. “Julia Copenhaver,” she said. “And you’re Oliver Graeme.”
He took the hand with a tired smile. “At one time, I suppose. I retain the name for sentimental reasons.”
Julia kept his hand, closed her other hand over both of theirs. “It’s one of the great names in Twentieth Century art,” she said. “I would cherish it.”
Oliver placed his free hand on top of the others; it was as if they were making a pact. “At this early moment in what I expect will be the entirely disagreeable twenty-first century, it’s delightful to meet someone who feels that way.”
“Well, good. I like a man who can take a compliment.”
Harlan knew the remark was addressed to him, but he appreciated the deflection. Compliments made him suspicious. Even the sincere ones had a wheedling exigence that gave him sinus headaches: what’s your next project, don’t let me down, what have you done for me lately?
He was going to invite Julia and her friend them to share a table, but she leaned forward and kissed his cheek. Her voice was neutral, “Nice to see you.” Then more quietly, in his ear, finishing their private conversation, “Try a little harder next time.”
She was gone before he could answer.
Seated in an alcove at the back of the restaurant a few minutes later, Oliver remarked, “Lovely woman.”
“She’s my decorator.”
“It’s strictly a business relationship.”
“And she is in fact romantically involved with that dreary, balding little sycophant? Please.”
“He seemed all right to me. He has good taste in art, anyway.”
“It reminded me of the old days. People looking right past me to chat you up, as if I wasn’t there. It gave me an inkling of how ghosts must feel. But I’m not dead yet.”
“Julia noticed you all right.”
Oliver’s shoulders seemed to nudge up a rueful smile, topping off his shrug. “But only to needle the big man, I’m afraid.”
“I doubt that.”
“She’s smitten with you, dear boy.”
“What can I say? I’m irresistible.”
“Yes, but to an ever narrower demographic. I daresay that group standing by the pool table would scarcely notice you. We have attained that median age where our relative youth as noted in our obituaries will depend entirely on how we die.” Harlan started to interrupt, to divert this new morbidity, but Oliver raised one finger to silence him. “Bear with me. Four years older than you, on the brink of American retirement age, I will be classified as ‘tragically young’ when I expire. Whereas if you tricked one of those girls into bed and died from a heart attack when discovered in flagrante by her scandalized parents, the phrase ‘dirty old man’ would certainly spring to the mind of the average reader, though I suspect the Times would settle for ‘elderly artist’.”
“Thanks so much.”
“I only bring it up because this rather intriguing woman some ten years your junior seems to find you attractive, even in your dotage.”
“And you’re intrigued, Harlan. As well you should be. So pounce!”
Harlan shook his head. “I’m taken.”
“Really? You have some great romance in your life? I see no sign of it whatsoever. No female touches in your rather austere house, no pictures, no lipstick in the bathroom, no extra toothbrush – nothing.”
“We’re working things out.”
The waitress brought their drinks – a Sam Adams for Harlan and a glass of house red for Oliver. He took a sip. “Forbidden fruit. Imagine if Adam and Eve had gotten around to fermenting the stuff! God would have been most upset.” He took another sip, set the glass down. “I remember the daunting moment when I looked at some lovely young girl and thought – Oliver! She’s young enough to be your daughter and then had to correct myself. In fact she was young enough to be my grand-daughter. Ghastly moment. But I have to ask --”
“Daughter,” said Harlan.
“Well, that’s progress.”
The waiter came back and took their orders – a burger for Harlan, bangers and mash for Oliver.
“It hardly seems possible,” Oliver said. “Real Irish sausages?”
The waiter shrugged. “The owner’s a real Irishman.”
When he was gone Harlan said “Twenty years. How the hell did twenty years go by?”
“On tip toe, sprinting.”
Harlan took a long drink, set the glass down. “What a waste.”
“We waste what seems plentiful. Ruth always used to say – ‘Beduins don’t leave the water running.’”
Oliver shrugged. “I took notes.”
“Right, that diary of yours. Everyone scribbling in their diaries. I’d rather just remember things.”
“Even if your memory is faulty?”
“I envy those Beduins,” Oliver said after a silent moment ruffled by a group singing happy birthday to someone at the other end of the restaurant. “The scarcity in their lives is manageable at least. You can always find water in the desert, if you know where to look.”
“Fuck the Beduins. They die too and that’s what we’re talking about. Death. Sorry about that.”
Oliver smiled. “The reference fails to shock me. I abandoned the idea of immortality after the first biopsy report. That’s not the sort of thing Gods have to contend with. Even demi-gods. Many diverse creatures populate Asgard and Mount Olympus – trolls and giants and demons. But in all my reading on world mythology I’ve never found a single reference to oncologists.”
Harlan laughed, but it sputtered into a sigh. “I’m supposed to be cheering you up here.”
“And you’re doing an excellent job. Bangers and mash! Extraordinary.”
“At least you’re still eating.”
Oliver pushed a breath out from between tightly pressed lips. “In point of fact,” he said. “It’s more the concept, the Platonic ideal, if you will …the taste or more precisely the smell of my childhood. Don’t expect me to eat much.”
“Please. I daresay the trick of growing older is to enjoy life within an ever narrowing range of experience. I can still appreciate the smell of an Irish sausage and the sound of an old friend’s voice. And wine never loses its appeal – even plonk like this.” He took another sip. “Ruth prided herself on never paying more than twenty dollars for a bottle of wine,” he went on, setting his glass down.
“Funny. I remember her as the worst wine snob ever.”
“But thrifty. I think she enjoyed the hunt more than the wine. But you had that in common.”
“I mean you never lingered with any of your conquests, there was never any question of divorce. Ruth said you were like one of those humanitarian fox hunters who spared the prey when it was cornered.”
Harlan blew out a breath. “Shit.”
“Nothing. Just -- she didn’t miss much.”
“She missed nothing. And yet she persisted in loving you. Extraordinary. No one could talk her out of it.”
“I bet you gave it a try, though.”
“On numerous occasions. To no avail.”
Harlan sat forward, feeling the old anger surge back. “You got exactly what you deserved, buddy. She was my wife. You figured she’d leave me but you figured wrong. When she had to choose, she chose me. I wanted to punish you for what you did. I wanted you to suffer. Then I realized -- the only woman you ever really loved was mine, and you were going to have to live with that every day for the rest of your life, which was good enough for me. I’ve always liked poetic justice.”
Oliver smiled. “That’s the Harlan Mallory I remember. ‘Kill them with honesty’ -- isn’t that what you always used to say?”
“Well ... as the only real alternative seems to be – ‘anesthetize them with lies.’ I confess I find your candor positively invigorating this evening.”
“Hey, it’s all water under the bridge. None of it matters any more. No one gives a shit. I’ll be the last man standing soon and I’m not writing my memoirs.”
They were quiet for a while, listening to clink and clatter of the restaurant, the growl and grumble of other conversations. Finally Oliver said. “For years I had a recurring dream about the three of us. I did a portrait of Ruth – the woman I knew, the woman I was sure you’d never seen. I showed it to you.”
“What did I think?”
Oliver looked down, studied the scarred finish of the wooden table. “You didn’t recognize it.”
Harlan felt his fists clenching and made a conscious effort to relax his fingers. It was all so close to the surface still, like those chunks of lava, crusted over with cooling rock, still molten on the inside. Well, the core of the earth had been molten for a million years. What did you expect?
“I would have recognized her,” he said quietly. It was important not to raise his voice.
Oliver shrugged. “In your own dream, perhaps.”