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Winter 2007 [Issue No. 11]

FICTION

 

 

The Chesterfield Hours (Part 1 of 3) ▪► David Druschel

[Continued on Next Page]  ▪  [Final Issue]  ▪  [Download PDF*]

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to 

Victoria Frayne Sook Druschel, 1953-2006

 

 

 

 

 

January: Chesterfield Gets the Gate

 

What’s a gentleman to do, with a bolter on his hands?

For now, Chesterfield thought, let’s keep it inside the family.

“I mean to say, darling boy,” his mother Daphne said as she handed him a plate of poached and bangers, “it’s the truly virile man that a woman must flee in the end.”

“I’d have liked one final shot at Deborah,” his father Jack, a zestful lifelong philanderer, said ruefully from the kitchen table. “I always thought if I bided my time that eventually she’d come to me with the goods.”

“Oh, what a lot of rot you talk, Jack.”

“Well, Dad,” Chesterfield said, “allez cherchez.” Wife Deborah, who always had shared with him this Sunday brunch at his parents’, had kissed him off just the day before, and left on “vacation,” dragging one suitcase on little hot wheels.

Jack Chesterfield, sixty-six, gray and brawny with a Marine globe and anchor tattooed to his forearm, mused, “Your mother could take her own vacation with young Ben Hoepplewhite, I suppose. I wouldn’t stand in the way.”

“Oh, tosh,” his wife said. “Have you noticed Ben’s calf muscles, though, when he wears those really long shorts and Blucher moccasins?”

Benedict Hoepplewhite, mortgage broker and born prole, was riding high these days, owing to refi madness. The home of Chesterfield and Deborah, purchased rather witlessly at peaks in price and rate, had brought him buzzing round yet again.

“Well, Mother,” Chesterfield said, “I’d have you go and do your worst, if it kept him away from Deb... say, when did you last see Hoepplewhite?”

Daphne Chesterfield, aglow in her morning blue kimono and bandeau, gave him a look of lascivious comprehension.

“My dear, you’re streets ahead of him in the hot-stuff department. At most she’d need him for a little soft currency after your six years’ onslaught.” She glanced toward Jack. “God knows I understand that.”

 ▼▪▲

His mother’s belief in the ravening potency of Chesterfield men was as durable as it was beside the point. Deborah’s move was, inarguably, a prosaic and depressing one. His prospects were capped. Of money he had little. Chesterfield was a shanty WASP.

No profession save gentleman is free of dirt and thievery. Certainly not Hoepplewhite’s. From Jack, Chesterfield inherited a body useful and willing. And from Daphne? An unwieldy old ethic in which he yet believed; and a rumoured family fortune, in which he couldn’t, quite.

For one came into it only in one’s senescence. Even Daphne wasn’t yet there. Granny Victoria, now ninety-one, had gained the lot at age seventy-three. No one knew how much. The Ffoulkes bred continently down the generations, and lived excruciatingly long. They married savage acquisitors to whom they felt carnally drawn and who died or departed after too many years of the stick with no carrot.

Captain Jack Chesterfield was the better sort of Ffoulkes mate, Daphne would say after two Manhattans, as he’d stuck it thirty-eight years now with resort to only three of her girl cousins and at most six of her friends.

Beyond doubt, and for the worse, the world was speeding up. Thus Deborah had cut losses and chucked it, at the tender age of thirty-three.

▼▪▲ 

Chesterfield taught sixth grade because its requirements were precisely himself. One needs a day with a proper lunch and a bit of sport in the middle. He fancied that he was surely by now the best kickball player in the world, as he’d been at it thirty years, give or take a few diverted.

He liked children and, after the Ffoulkes fashion, had hoped to have one of his own some day. Sixth grade served quite well, since a male there induced no parental vapours as in, say, kindergarten (No, thanks! The bending and back aches, the boot and snowsuit pulling, the toilet work, etc., etc., etc.); and a sixth-grader was not yet the stinking beast he would become once Chesterfield shoved him onward into junior high. It had worked out pretty well…

“Darcy is a f-----‘ ho!” exclaimed Dylan Czarnecki, as his antagonist plated the winning run for the girls’ team.

Gendered competitions were very bitter now. Chesterfield called for the ball.

“Line up!” he said. “Dylan will lunch with me in the room.”

“Aw!” As it was winter, they played kickball in the gym.

The world was speeding up. Dylan’s precocity prompted Chesterfield to revisit his own plight. In a better world – say, Shakespeare’s – it had been no cause for censure to decide that one’s wife was a whore. Naturally one concluded it silently – one did not proclaim it.

Chesterfield had not concluded this of Deborah; he hadn’t, yet, conclusive information. And if he were to so conclude, it would hardly be to deny his wife some éclat, of a Ford Madox Ford/Sylvia Tietjens kind. That was trying a girl pretty high, if she were a contemporary American, but perhaps Debs was up to it.

What if she wanted better than a Honda and a Cape Cod? The cohort seeking worldly rather than eternal rewards is, today, no small one. But what dirty fellow would lay a slime-trail of gilt promises, sneering comparisons of income, and his own revolting footprints, sinuating into Chesterfield’s little abode?

Hoepplewhite’s faintest scent was tangible compared to The Fortune, of which Chesterfield had fetched no negotiable whiff in his thirty-six years. Yet when he recurred, as a cuckold will, to his wife’s recent observable behavior, he divined a root so embarrassing as to implicate not only Deborah but his own mother before his rival. Recollection of it chagrined Chesterfield, who already in his own mind had called out Hoepplewhite and killed him, but he could not gainsay it.

Call it The Night of the Third Manhattan. Continence may not be, in fact could not be, the greatest of virtues. Yet who would deny that its abandonment, by an accustomed practitioner, is a catastrophe?

Daphne had three at their rehearsal dinner. It was the Chesterfields’ party and their choices were notable. It was a fall wedding, and the University Club produced an excellent dinner of squab, root vegetables sweetened and pounded to mush, and French wine. Withal, it was no affair one would attribute to pensioners, and Jack at least took the kudos in his stride. Daphne glided like a sylph through the cocktail hour on one Manhattan; capped her second during dinner with a languorous touch of the bride’s father’s hand; and once in possession of the fatal third took Deborah arm in arm to a divan in the smoking room.

There, more came out pertaining to The Fortune than in the lifetimes of Chesterfield and Jack combined. Deborah’s people, while good enough, were not of the sort who trigger competitive impulses – Daphne had yet to meet that sort – so no doubt the unburdening was simply a kind of gift to both women. As to whether the tale gathered in color and usable data – estimated zeros, decimal placement, etc. -- as much through Deborah’s probings as through Daphne’s elation, no gentleman would ask.

A gentleman might, though, draw conclusions – once given the gate despite no flagging in his own good offices. The Fortune had thus dwelt with them from Day One Minus One, to Chesterfield as an abstraction, to Deborah as perhaps more. Frequently she would allude to it, in halcyon days as a kind of benevolent uncle, latterly as a kind of adverse and sadistic Scrooge. Then, over the past several months, silence. A less golden attendant of this last period had been Hoepplewhite, in his new incarnation as preening success, bashing them over the heads with the need to “refi.” Pleasant hours spent he and Deborah, of workday noons, flipping through his rate books over cappuccino lunches…

These she leapt to justify, though Chesterfield did not ask it, by floating Hoepplewhite’s further insulting suggestion that Jack and Daphne do with him a reverse mortgage, thereby to enjoy a greater income (and yes, the villain had dared to broach “quality of life”) until…

Well, to Chesterfield there was no “until.” The Fortune would be there, or not. He would retire a teacher of thirty years. Of course no gentleman lets the state provide for him, but as he saw it the teacher’s pension was simply the return of his own, less an unfortunate haircut for the bungling of bureaucratic managers. In the meantime, there was their cosy house and its books, the pleasures of sport and nature, their beloved corgi Daisy, their intimacy…

No decent narrative, of course, expatiates on such intimacy. While they are married a couple’s relations must be satisfactory. If those relations were not satisfactory, the couple would not be married…

“Do you mind telling me,” demanded Deborah a few weeks before she left, as she sat at her computer, “Do you mind telling me why there’s an e-mail here with the subject line “Get a better h---on?”

“Good God!”

“Well?”

Chesterfield’s school colleague Larry Berkowitz, a tech lad, said he’d been blitzed with noisome solicitations for gender- and age-inappropriate pharmaceuticals. Chesterfield had only the vaguest as to what was “spam” and what a “pop-up”; he knew only that if these terms had been separated from soldiers and baseball, it was a poor world indeed.

“Have I not told you,” he said to Deborah, “that electronic mail is the end of civil society?” The comma splices, the run-ons, the no caps, the all caps, the promiscuous serial exclamations…

“Well,” his wife replied with what seemed a strained hauteur, “I’m not looking for a better h---on. You must be getting online here and not telling me.”

“I am getting on nowhere. It’s your infernal contraption, and welcome to it. It is amusing these new-age brilliant fellows can’t grasp Marketing 101. Know your customer, and all that. What that customer’s actual parts are, and aren’t… ”

“Okay!”

Chesterfield hated to think that Deborah, so lovely and generous, would pick a fight just to make him feel unworthy or guilty. What did the old Viennese witch doctor -- as Nabokov called Freud -- say about projection?

Perhaps, whenever she’d brought up The Fortune, he should have taken her in his arms and patiently, lovingly addressed her every hope and worry. Instead, he’d brushed it off as he would a locust that drops on the neck and makes one shiver. Though he had taken her in his arms again and again, when their desires were one…

“Whaddaya need, hon?”

Chesterfield stood abashed in the front desk area of Ripped & Shredded, the gymnasium to which Deborah (and Hoepplewhite) belonged. A quite muscular, latterly blonde young lady addressed him from the doorway to a darkened room, from which issued a crashing din of recorded bass-driven noise, flashing light, and not a few live human shrieks.

“Oh, hello there,” he said, affecting a jaunty nonchalance. “Name’s Chesterfield. I’ve been round a few times, picking up my wife who’s one of your members. Is she about?”

“Deborah?”

“Right.” Chesterfield felt already a bit dirty about his disingenuous question, but now as the woman caught him staring at her exposed midsection, he felt himself redden. She had a biggish steel missile plunged through her navel, and a crimson and blue illustration radiating outward across the abdomen, suggesting a casualty on some pagan battlefield.

“Not in a couple days, hon. Usually she’s every day.”

“Ah,” Chesterfield said. “I guess she’s got us both at sea.” He stepped toward the woman, and the darkened room, in a kind of fascination.

The woman yielded slightly as Chesterfield peeked in. It was a scene Dantesque and harrowing. Five figures thrashed furiously on bicycles, as light bombarded them and the noise crashed away. One figure, female, wore a wireless microphone and screamed incomprehensible commands to the others. All sweated appallingly, and their tortured eyes glinted from out of the shadows. Their acute agonies, the cruel searching light and exploding barrage struck one as a trench raid tableau from the Great War.

“Spinning class,” the woman yelled in Chesterfield’s ear. “You oughta try it some time.”

Chesterfield did not want to see any woman sweat like a very hog, though he realized times had changed. He did not even see why a man should publicly sweat unless it came perforce through real sport or real work, and then into cool, absorbent and tasteful whites. Among the five dripping and spastic figures was a single male, who seemed to Chesterfield infinitely pathetic.

“Say,” he said to the woman. “I wonder if our pal, Benedict Hoepplewhite, is pitching his gymnastics here today.”

“Ben’s your friend?” she said. “He’s such a hottie. Tell him I said that.”

Chesterfield gritted out a smile. “Not on the premises, then, I take it.”

He glimpsed a wad of blue gum as she ceased chewing to ponder.

“Now that you mention it,” she said, “he’s usually every day too. But I think he’s away.”

He thanked her and turned to go.

“Tell Ben what I said,” the woman said. “It’s better when it’s a third person, you know?”

Chesterfield turned back round. “Devilishly subtle,” he said. “Who should I say called him a hottie?”

“Jeanine at R & S.”

“Righto.”

▼▪▲

That was enough of conventional tracking. It was disagreeable. A sole coincidence is no grounds for conclusion, yet in Chesterfield’s heart and mind Deborah was truly flown. The past months of uneasy apprehension, punctuated by her execrable parting declaration that “It’s not working,” had done violence to the feelings he’d treasured so long.

The next honourable thing was to appreciate Deborah’s possible suffering. Not, of course, at his own hands. He recalled Hoepplewhite, with the beady eyes of a woodchuck, joining them at his parents’ table, where so often they would breakfast on weekends. Grimly Chesterfield remembered that Deborah and Hoepplewhite had come in their separate cars from R & S, while Chesterfield had run with Daisy about the woods behind Jack and Daphne’s place. Over scones and coffee his nemesis outlined a “sensational” alternative to the reverse mortgage, which would involve Jack and Daphne putting for sale their “empty nest” bungalow while acquiring a lakeside condo. Hoepplewhite, naturally, would handle both transactions.

Chesterfield had not ditched his every pair of trousers when he quit sweets and dropped from 34 to 33. No doubt Hoepplewhite the Haberdasher would have so advised him. But Jack and Daphne, with their only child long out of the roost, hardly considered they had a barn on their hands, and as with the 34s found the extra breathing room salutary. Hoepplewhite’s pitch died in the air…

So that’s the sort of thing Deborah was in for. How could Chesterfield not feel more sympathy than anger? He was also sad that she had walked out on Daisy, on things old and evocative, on the little house that would have chafed them whilst they raised their one and only, and expanded again once they sent the child into the world. Chesterfield might not get her back now, but suddenly he could not stop worrying for her. That’s how Hoepplewhite had blighted the landscape.

▼▪▲

“I can create a new domain from here,” Larry Berkowitz said. “Make it look like one of those crazy ones the ads come from.”

“Whose name would be on it?” Chesterfield asked. They sat by the computer in the teachers’ lounge at school. “Isn’t there always an actual name as well as address and subject line?”

“How about mine? It’s easy, it’s honest, and to him it’s just a name. These things are always from some ordinary-sounding stranger – “

“Brilliant! You’re a pal.”

“ -- or else they’re from Bambi, or Tif – “

“Or Jeanine.”

It was well that Larry’s magic was so terrible, else Chesterfield should grow too fond of it. At three o’clock he sat facing a cyber tabula rasa, business cards of Hoepplewhite and Deborah beside him, and typed in the “Larry Berkowitz” subject line: Viagra $1 a Pop!

He dropped his hands into his lap. Let’s hold that one in reserve, he thought. He also had a “Jeanine” account set up by Larry, and went to it. In that subject line he entered Spinning Anyone???

Ben, he typed,

Hi!!! Cant beleive im doing this but honest its about business well mostly anyway!! When u gonna join spinning its the best esp. for you’re thighs and butt tho I bet u don’t get to many complants!! They really get on our case to sign up new members its not just working out and “lookin good” you have to SELL!!! For spinning I will give u a free month thats a $30 value and if u dont luv it my bad u can give me a spankin!!! OK sales pitch over Ben I really want u to “spin me” all I ever do is work and take care of my parents!!! I am a good girl who wants to go bad but only with a guy I already know and respect so much!!! Come workout after dinner Wed. thats when I close the place we can do what u like I can’t comitt cuz of my parents lets just get bizzy!!!!!

    C u then, J

ps this is from my home computer the gym lets me work from home!!

Chesterfield hit Send.

▼▪▲

That was Monday. The fugitives could only have been on a weekender. How could she chance more with the shotten bugger, having only fooled with him at most in cars and coffeehouses? They had gotten a nasty itch and went off to scratch it. But they’d be back now. How had it gone? Where was Deborah?

When he got home he saw that she’d been there. Of course she’d need undies and wardrobe generally. The tiny changes in the house were unsettling: Chesterfield noticed a scrap of new food in Daisy’s dish. The dog came to him, and he took her out back in the yard, where she stayed beside him as a corgi will do, steady working and loyal.

“What can you tell me, dear Daisy?” he said.

Of course you cannot locate people today. They don’t sit home and when they return don’t answer the telephone there. For every age, though, there is a Trojan Horse. The dodgiest people always, from anywhere, will open the electronic mail with trust and anticipation. So long as it offers pleasure without cost, they cannot leave it alone…

Once inside again, gingerly he switched on Deborah’s computer. This time he used his very own new address, set up by Larry in case he wanted it (he hadn’t).

He composed various messages to Deborah. Always he aborted them and began again with a new tack. Deborah’s physical irregularities were few, and dear to him. Her tastes were less atrocious than the going norm. Her work did not offend God or nature. The power of satire failed Chesterfield. He only felt sad.

He pulled out Hoepplewhite’s card again. In the subject line he wrote, Keen to refi.

 

In the body he wrote:

Hoepplewhite,

Thanks for your patience, old boy. Am ready to do that deal you’d been “pitching.” Realize I’m like every impossible customer: dawdling, procrastinating, dissecting it ad nauseam, then all of a sudden downright hotfoot to get it done. But trust you can accommodate. Do ring ASAP as can’t wait. Best, Chesterfield

A hazard of new fortunes, you blighter, Chesterfield thought as he hit Send.

▼▪▲

Two days later, on the brink of the Jeanine rendezvous, there had still been no reply, to himself or to “Jeanine.” Nor had Deborah been back in the house. Nor had she left word. Perhaps she was reeling from a masculine malfeasance she’d thought particular to her husband, now writ universal by a swinish new paramour. Hoepplewhite was cheap. Chesterfield remembered that now. Not quite the ticket with a girl fixed on fortune…

Chesterfield spent a restless dinner hour, eating little, walking Daisy. It was full dark when he pulled into the R & S parking lot at 8:30. He sat fifty yards from the door, behind the wheel with lights off, and waited. Squinting at the illuminated lobby and front desk, he saw Jeanine.

A sport utility vehicle pulled up near the door. Chesterfield knew, without seeing, the vanity plate: LOCK IN. Hoepplewhite had reddish blonde hair and an unsightly bunching of muscle between his neck and shoulder blades. The gymnasium, ultimately, is a deforming place…

Hoepplewhite climbed out of the SUV, wearing an overcoat over a suit. He had not come to spin, at least in the R & S sense. As the door opened, Chesterfield saw Jeanine’s head turn toward it. With that, he turned his key and drove home.

▼▪▲

Name of Sender: “Larry Berkowitz”

Subject line: Viagra $1 a Pop!

…no, scratch that. It had tickled Chesterfield for a while after Deborah got on about the pop-overs, er, pop-ups, er, spam, er… blast the whole pantry-ful of nauseating glop! Larry said anyway that no one with a brain ever opens…

Right.

Subject line: Chesterfield’s Blessing

Message: Now hear this, Hoepplewhite. Rest assured that no stretch of Caribbean sand, no reserve of Lafit ’61, no exertions of your grotesque and hoggish physique can effect the transfer of Deborah’s affections to a scullion like yourself. You guppy.

ps – Recently with my early warning radar blaring it amused me to tell D. you had millions. So better cut a splash – you wouldn’t want to disappoint in yet another realm.

Might some third party happen upon this loaded missive? Oh, right – Deborah might. Perhaps she, settled in proprietarily at Hoepplewhite’s, would field this one, and for a change berate and tear out the whiskers of someone who deserved it. Let Hoepplewhite take some friendly fire if not his enemy’s.

Next could only be the physical settlement; that would be cleansing, if bloody. Chesterfield envisaged a dagger in the goon’s disgusting hump.

This was certain: recourse to the hated e-mail could move human chess pieces like nobody’s business; yet staying perpetually at it could only leave the Sender in a morass of depression and self-loathing. Chesterfield felt not clever at all.

He put his head in his hands. He was done flaying at keyboards. People were not even alive today. Had they forgotten that our blood must be set to running; if not spilled, at least it must move within…

There was a bump downstairs as Chesterfield clumsily finished shutting down. He descended. Daisy was running to the door.

Deborah stood in the hallway. She had not even her poor little wheely case. She looked up at Chesterfield as he stood frozen on the stairs, and she bent and felt for Daisy who bumped against her. The front door remained ajar.

Which way she would break, Chesterfield hadn’t the slightest. A bolting wife so disorders a house that her return seems to start the world to roaring. Yet all was silence.

She was squatting now as she pulled Daisy to her. She wore no coat, she belonged neither here nor there…

He took another step down, and another. Deborah stood and seemed actually to waver before him. Surely Hoepplewhite called to her, with pretty lies…

Chesterfield felt clean again. A gentleman does not Send to his wife; he speaks to her.

“There is no fortune,” he said to Deborah. Would she stay or would she go?

Daisy, unnerved, piddled on the carpet at the feet of Deborah, who stood anchored there.

“You lie,” she said.

“I have a mistress,” he said. “She’s upstairs just now.”

“You teach sixth grade,” she said, “and have only a dog.” Daisy, shame-faced, dragged her bum circularly over the carpet, snuffled, then streaked out the open door.

“Of course you realize,” Chesterfield said, “that Hoepplewhite’s been buggering after me for years. ‘Leave her,’ he says, ‘leave the doxy and be with me.’ Quite pathetic.”

“So are you,” she said. “Doxy is your word. Or is it the eighteenth century’s?”

Finally he stepped down and faced her straight on. Daisy’s pee stain settled between them like a sodden chaperone.

“If he’s out there a-waiting on you,” he said, “Daisy’s after killing him.”

‘He’s not,” she said. “And he couldn’t be more dead to me already.”

Chesterfield heard the dog barking, far-off and going away.

“Well,” he said, “I’d better go fetch her.”

He stepped out of the glaring hall and into the night. Daisy was shagging willy-nilly about the backyard of the house across the street, yelping like a dingo.

He heard Deborah throw the lock behind him.

“Take heart, Daisy,” he called. “We all are halfway home now.”

He crossed over the street.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

February: Chesterfield Gets Down

 

 

“Are you down yet?”

Chesterfield looked up from his grading book. Arlene Grimmboat, a third grade teacher who normally spent lunch hour with needles and ball of yarn, stared at him like a hen eyeing a grub.

“Beg pardon?” he said. “I didn’t catch.”

Arlene turned to Suzette Borch and snorted “Hello? Eagles goin’ to the Super Bowl!” She uttered this last as a kind of tribal chant.

“Like he’d have a clue,” said Suzette, “Missy Borch” to her second graders, “Blow Torch” to Chesterfield.

“Sorry,” Chesterfield said to Arlene. “I guess I’m not myself.” And neither are you, Grime Bat, he thought, or you’d be a-knitting.

“He misses his wife,” said Carrie Hahn, a young kindergarten teacher with an unnerving sentimental streak.

“Ah,” Chesterfield said, ignoring her and addressing Grime Bat. “If the question is whether I have a wager on the game, the answer is no. I am not down.”

“How did I guess?” said Blow Torch. “Like he’d know from football.”

“Certainly, though,” Chesterfield said, “a betting man would have to take the Eagles. Seven points is too generous a spread to pass up.” This elicited grudging approval. “The Eagles won’t win,” he added, “but they’ll assuredly cover.”

“What?!”

“You f---ing traitor!”

Larry Berkowitz, technology director and Chesterfield’s only nearby male colleague, entered the lounge and sat on his other flank.

“Jesus,” Larry muttered. “What are you stirring up the yentas for?”

“It’s extraordinary,” Chesterfield said, “how mad the town’s gone in only two weeks.”

“Well, it’s been twenty-four years,” Larry said. “But don’t tell me that’s what these broads are screeching about?”

“Twenty-four years since what?” Blow Torch said. “Since you got laid?” Grime Bat guffawed. Carrie Hahn turned away blushing.

Male minority always found out Larry more painfully than it did Chesterfield, who at least had been loved before left.

“It is the Super Bowl they’re on about,” Chesterfield said to Larry as if the women were detention rowdies impervious to word. “And if it’s got into them, what’s to stop it turning Philadelphia into bloody Jonestown?”

At which point Carrie Hahn related an anecdote disturbing yet useful…

 

▼▪▲

 

“Like he’d have a clue about football.”

But Blow Torch had misjudged the Book of Chesterfield, having never read past the jacket copy of his diction and manners. From birth he’d imbibed the legend of the ’60 Eagles, of Van Brocklin, Bednarik and Retzlaff, who repulsed the mighty Packers in a pale and crystalline December sunlight. Eternally it seemed to live as Philadelphia’s first Technicolor moment, to martial music that sang in the blood…

…yet Chesterfield was damned if he’d get down now. Betting on football was disagreeable and bootless. He didn’t much like the Eagles of today, apart from their quarterback, a cheerful warrior of the good old kind.

“So my friend Marcy’s husband took out a second mortgage to bet on the Eagles, and he like forged her signature… “

Carrie Hahn’s tale was filtered by the other teachers through their own investment in the Eagles’ chances. Chesterfield’s vantage lay elsewhere. Here was the kind of sordid calamity a gentleman could properly wish on his worst enemy. Benedict Hoepplewhite, mortgage broker, wife-stealer and cur, was all but overqualified.

“Are you even certain, dear,” said his mother Daphne over Sunday brunch, “that Ben and Deborah left you sporting the horns? It all seemed to pass like Bottom’s dream.”

“Oh, they had their innings, Mother. But hear what I’ve got for the bugger. Carrie Hahn says – “

“I mean to say, Deborah seems to have done with all men.”

“That never takes,” said his father. “Just find her for me and you’ll see nature’s way.”

“Oh, rot, Jack.”

“Dad! Mother! Peace!” Chesterfield clinked a spoon to his juice glass. “No one can get hold of Hoepplewhite or Deborah either one, or I’d have killed him and made her my right wife again, on a bed of Swedish memory foam.”

“All right, dear,” Daphne said. “So tell us about this nice Carrie girl. Is there something we should know?”

“She’s my colleague! She’s only twenty-four!”

“You know, Deborah must be thirty-three if she’s a day,” said Jack, sixty-six. “When can I meet young Carrie?”

Chesterfield sighed and pushed away from the table. “Thanks for breakfast.” The Carrie Hahn mortgage stratagem wanted cold, sexless intelligence…

 

▼▪▲

 

“Didn’t we drop the hammer on this Edelweiss clown already?” Larry Berkowitz said. “The phony emails from that gym chick, and the Viagra ploy?” They sat before Larry’s master control center in the darkened tech lab.

“It’s Hoepplewhite, Benedict Hoepplewhite,” Chesterfield said. “Right, you were brilliant, and they’re no longer beasting it with two backs. But there’s no statute of limitations for his sort.”

“All right then,” Larry said, booting up, the good old gleam coming into his eyes. “So how do you want to jam the bastard this time?”

The door swung behind them with a squeal, and sickly hallway light oozed into the lab. Fay Muck, the principal, stood in the doorway.

“Why, Mister Chesterfield. I thought I’d see the pearly gates before I saw you sitting at a computer.”

“Why, Ms. Muck,” Chesterfield said ambiguously, “no one deserves a more straightaway passage through those gates than your splendid self. But there you have me. A computer to me is only a tea tray.”

Larry cleared his throat and managed to croak, “It’s all about the Super Bowl.”

Fay Muck stepped toward them and surveyed the screen. Upon her entrance Larry had deftly punched a football link and it came up just in time.

“You’re sure, Mister Berkowitz, that it isn’t all about babesaplenty.com?”

Chesterfield said, “Really it’s all about ruthless technology versus human intuition, Ms. Muck. The Super Bowl being a perfect laboratory, and Larry and I rival theoreticians.”

Fay Muck fixed him with a savage look. “What about ruthless humanity?” She then turned to Larry. “What about idiot technology?”

“Elegantly provocative!” Chesterfield said. “Cats lie with dogs, mere anarchy loosed upon the world. Trust you, Ms. Muck.”

“If only it were mutual,” the principal said and walked out the door.

“She kicked her husband out, you know,” Larry said. “Gambling and stuff.”

“Ah,” Chesterfield said. “Well, a gentleman doesn’t inquire.”

A gentleman might, however, usefully discern patterns. At the junior high and high schools were many male teachers who bet football. Slips were collected, of autumn Fridays, by a city dustman and nephew of Philadelphia’s CEO for the old Sicilian fraternity. Money flowed, in the way of the world, from the credulous multitudes to the ready few…

“ …took out a second mortgage to bet on the Eagles...”

…and if the teaching brethren, and the hapless Mr. Muck, and probably even Grime Bat and Blow Torch were all coming croppers at games, how many equity billions might tumble down the tidy bowl should the Philly proletariat fully extend itself?

“You understand,” Chesterfield said, “our fellow can’t get enough of lucre. He’s a bloody gluttonous hog, defined by dollars, and that’s how we’ll have him.”

“I wish I was defined by dollars,” Larry said.

“Oh no you don’t. You have your worries, as we all do, but your passion is the objective truths you wring out of this machine of yours. My passion is imparting to this sixth-grade clay a civilised ethic for a rancid and faithless age.”

“If I had the money,” Larry said, “then I’d have the women.”

Chesterfield thought of his lovely Deborah, who by rights should have rebounded to his forgiving self after the one grim and inexplicable weekend with the villain Hoepplewhite. Instead she was in a virtual nunnery of solitude, forfeiting their house and gardens, their beloved dog Daisy, their future one and only…

“Old boy,” he told Larry, “you’re going to see a river of money flow toward friend Hoepplewhite. But his final wages will be nothing you envy.”

Larry’s brows bunched peevishly. “He should go without women too. That would be justice.”

This might have come very near Chesterfield, but he took it not amiss. He clapped Larry on the shoulder. “I say again, money defines him. If we do our main job, no woman will raise him with derrick or pulley. So lead on, webmaster.”

 

▼▪▲

 

They sought, before all else, true believers.

 

WE DON’T LEND TO PUSSIES.

 

OUR FUNDS ARE AVAILABLE ONLY TO THOSE WILLING TO BET THE EAGLES TO WIN, NOT COVER!!!

 

“You don’t write like you talk,” Larry said.

“Well,” Chesterfield said, “American manhood lingers as I see it somewhere between denial and acceptance on the old Kubler-Ross. You’ve got to appeal to what they’ve got left, or wish they had.”

All responses, in Larry’s ingenious design, would funnel to Hoepplewhite’s business email as application requests, stripped of any reference to the game. Hoepplewhite, since the Deborah affair, had gone virtual and incorporeal.

No worry of mine, you tumor, thought Chesterfield. If you dwell in cyberspace or in a spider hole, I’ll have you all the same.

 

▼▪▲

 

It was Monday, Super Bowl Week. The city, and the nation, obsessed on the status of an injured and temperamental Eagles wide receiver. Could he, would he go on Sunday?

“I don’t care,” said Grime Bat over lunch. She was back to knitting, but barbarously, her needles stabbing the poor yarn as if it were an inhabited Cowboys jersey. “My bet is down and that’s that. You gotta have faith.”

“But do the football gods heed their humble servant?” Chesterfield said.

Grime Bat upshot one needle through her baby grandson’s future sweater, and Chesterfield could feel Larry flinch at his side. “You’re a snide sonofabitch.” she said.

But sheep were legion, and wooly, and seeking the shearer, this week in Philly. Chesterfield walked with Larry back to pick up his class at the cafeteria.

“Have you got a pulse on the Hoepplewhite thing?”

Larry’s eyes bugged. “It’s blowing up, man. The site has crashed at least a couple times.”

“Super. He’s likely intoxicated with inheriting heaven and earth.”

A roar issued from the cafeteria as Chesterfield and Larry reached the big doors. A surly Dylan Czarnecki shrugged off a female aide escorting him from his latest outrage. In their wake was a wailing kindergartener.

“Must go,” Chesterfield told Larry. Why did Principal Muck persist in scheduling Chesterfield’s sixth-grade beasts to grub with five-year-olds?

“Listen,” Larry called after. “Are you at all worried that we might be putting money in this guy’s pockets?”

Chesterfield was closing on young Dylan. “Not in the slightest,” he called back to Larry. The Eagles would cover, but they’d assuredly lose.

The hulking Dylan Czarnecki, rising five feet and a half and tipping one-forty, raged, “I didn’t do nothin’!”

“Except wreck the Queen’s English and torment the weak,” Chesterfield said. “For which crimes I am the absolute hanging judge.”

Twenty feet away Carrie Hahn comforted her sobbing charge, a tiny girl. Dylan almost – almost – deserved immediate off-loading to his mother, an unbalanced harridan given to slapping. We must, Chesterfield reluctantly decided, consider what’s best for everyone. But what in the deuce would that be?

As with the mortgage refi scheme, Carrie Hahn providentially answered.

Petite, dwarfed even by this sixth-grade Visigoth, she approached with the little girl hugging timorously to her side. “Dylan,” she said, “is there something you want to say?”

Dylan looked pole-axed. “I’m sorry,” he said. He never looked at the kindergartener.

“’I’m sorry, Katarina,’” Carrie coached. “’I’ll never do it again.’”

Katarina didn’t exist for this remorseless thug, but he mouthed, “I’m sorry, Katarina. I’ll never do it again.” Dylan’s gaze never moved off Carrie Hahn’s face.

Good God, thought Chesterfield. The little warthog’s in love!

“That’s better.” Carrie turned to Chesterfield. “What did they expect? It’s not a compatible mix.”

That penultimate word plinked a chord in Chesterfield. “It’s housecats with tigers,” he said. “I’ll speak to Muck about it.”

Dylan, sweating, with an orange stain ringing his mouth, stood stupidly mooning at Carrie Hahn. I am keener to punish this lout, Chesterfield admitted to himself, than I am to improve him. Yet I am charged to do both. He bent to pat little Katarina, who held to Carrie’s leg like a koala bear to a tree.

“I’m bound to say, Miss Hahn,” he said, “that a rote apology hardly seems to have made full amends to our Katarina, or to you, or to myself.”

Carrie’s green eyes caught his implication and leapt beyond. She leveled those eyes onto Dylan’s.

“Dylan,” she said, “this must never happen again, and I would like to see you learn to protect the little ones instead of hurting them. Since you’ve given Mr. Chesterfield no choice but to revoke some of your recess time, I’m going to suggest that you spend that time doing jobs for me in my room. Mr. Chesterfield?”

Dylan, nodding dumbly, was already gone over to her.

She was an angel from Provvy! “Let’s make it a month!” Chesterfield said hilariously. The long, claustrophobic late winter of indoor recess, of Dylan and his B.O., his sadism toward girls and his dampening effect on class spirit, was spanned in a trice. What a girl…

 

▼▪▲

 

Days and nights at home – it was no good denying – were hard now. Modest as their bungalow abode was, it bulked cavernous and hollow with Deborah two months gone. Chesterfield had, he liked to think, inner resources. He and Daisy ran morning and night, and he spoke to and stroked her as he read on the sofa of nights. He saw his parents betimes, but not overmuch. On Super Bowl Thursday he even gave a cocktail hour, decently attended by fellow teachers, at which Carrie Hahn insisted on helping to serve and do dishes. Larry consumed two beers and got playing limericks with the absent Principal Muck’s name. The party anticipated what in effect was a nationwide long weekend and it went pretty well…

At nine o’clock his mother called.

“My dear,” she said, “Granny Victoria is very poorly. We’d better get braced, I’m afraid.”

This required bracing indeed, though no one was readier to shuffle off the coil than Granny V herself, at ninety-one. No, the true awful weight of anticipation centered on The Fortune, which came down through Daphne’s people, the Ffoulkes, like a cruel generational joke.

“How sad, Mother,” Chesterfield said, “for all of us, and you above all.”

“Right. Look, dear, your father’s bellowing something at me. So there you have it, and you know I’ll level with you when the time comes.” She rang off.

So there it was. Daphne and Jack, and Chesterfield and Deborah after them, were to accept their three-score and ten of genteel poverty, of smallish houses and frugal holidays. The Fortune – if it were even real – amounted to a sort of afterlife…

 With this thought, at home after his little party, he came back to himself. He looked about for Daisy. Yes, no denying days and nights at home were hard now. Chesterfield wasn’t even bothered that some might consider it was Deborah off playing the man: staying in dives, furtively coming round for this and that, bolting again before conversation went past niceties. And rumoured to be “speed dating.” Such flittings were so far from what Chesterfield himself wanted that he couldn’t credit a society that would expect such of him, or any man. That which he liked, he only liked more and more, loved more and more. That was how he’d felt about Deborah. All they had together, their house and grounds, their Daisy, their conversations and intimacies…

“Hello?”

Her voice found him changing upstairs. Of the cocktail party there was now no trace, thanks to young Carrie, and somewhat to Larry. The spotless house would doubtless annoy Deborah…

“You up there? Where’s Daisy?”

She had her own key still, of course. No gentleman would niggle at that. He, and the house, are at her disposal…

Daisy was running to her. This, as always on these stealth visits, brought from Deborah a surge of feeling.

“You Daisy! You good girl!”

“Missing you,” Chesterfield said matter-of-factly from atop the stairs. He omitted the pronoun and helping verb, so that the subject in fact could be Daisy. He needed to compose himself.

Daisy capered around the legs of his wife, who bent to stroke her. Deborah wore, against the mid-winter winds that had been so vicious, a long camel coat that would do credit to a gentleman. She was hatless, red-faced, and her long brown hair was everywhere: inside her lapels, splashed down her back, in her face.

She also held an object immediately familiar, yet wrong somehow, excrescent on her own person. “Whose scarf is this?”

“Ah,” he said, in recognition. “Young Carrie. Forget her head next. I’ll take it in to school tomorrow.”

“Young Carrie?” Deborah, on these nocturnal pop-ins, would enter with an attitude both guilty and pugnacious and then, finding Chesterfield as always alone with Daisy, soften like caramel. And then bolt again, to leave him shaking. Now with the paisley scarf draped over her camel sleeve she assumed a nauseous rigidity.

Something impelled Chesterfield for once not to hang back, but rather to descend the stairs to meet her. He drew the scarf from Deborah and at the same time kissed her on the cheek, not perfunctorily but amorously, sliding his lips subtly toward the neck below her ear.

“I threw a small Thursday for the faculty, pretty well-attended actually. Cheerful-like, did me some good, I think – “

“Get your face off me,” she snarled, shoving him back. “Who the f--- is Carrie?”

“Steady on, dear. That’s not your lingo, nor was ever your style.”

Again not waiting on her, not waiting for the pop-in to rotten, he turned back to climb the stairs. He heard her take breath.

“Who – “

“Teaches kindergarten, you know,” he said over his shoulder. “One of the bunch.” He was climbing, she was in his wake.

Astonishing, Chesterfield thought. Her every pop-in till now had left him morose and desolate: the powerlessness and futility; Deborah’s pats for him and Daisy; her abrupt dismissal of them and her exit. Desolating. But now…what was this welling of uplift he felt, this sense that he was literally rising?

“Good night, dear. Daisy misses – “

But Daisy, leaving Deborah, rocketed up the stairs and beat him to the bedroom.

Carrie Carrie Moon Child, Chesterfield thought, laying the scarf over his doorknob. Three times now you’ve been the charm.

 

▼▪▲

 

Chesterfield’s suspicion that The Fortune, real or not, was a curse had deepened with the Hoepplewhite/Deborah affair. The Night of the Third Manhattan had put The Fortune in Deborah’s mind, where ultimately it grew malignant. She seemed unnaturally to dwell on it and wish it into their hands ahead of its excruciating schedule. Still, six years passed that were otherwise blissful. Then gone she was, gone off with a Hoepplewhite suddenly toff and hubristic on inrushing buckets of refi dollars, a classic mistaking of brains for a bull market.

All very painful, notwithstanding a break-up after one weekend that spoke of something fantastically repellent in friend Hoepplewhite. Who, what was this Hoepplewhite?

Chesterfield wasn’t sure he anymore cared, since the Night of the Scarf. Deborah’s refusal to rejoin him on the good old path had baffled and saddened him, till that night. Then with the angel’s weight of Carrie’s scarf on his arm, his climb with Daisy up the stairs and away from Deborah, he had, in a spontaneous and unwilled way, let her go. Funny…

And Hoepplewhite? Habitual greed, a fitfully attentive Almighty, and the inexorable swings of capital markets would settle accounts one day.

It was with a renewed sense of balance that Chesterfield left the house on Super Bowl Friday. The Eagles’ injured and self-dramatizing wide receiver would play on Sunday. Hobbled or not, this prima donkey would command defensive attention, and thus help the Eagles to cover, though they’d assuredly lose.

There was commotion in the custodial area as Chesterfield entered school that Friday. This was also the place where smokers smoked, gossips gossiped, and decorum fell away generally. Chesterfield spied Grime Bat and Blow Torch, among others, including Carrie Hahn. In the center of the group was an outsider, a little dark-haired man in a bulging black goose-down coat with enormous work gloves sticking out of one pocket. He held papers of different sizes in each hand and a pen. As Chesterfield approached, the man regarded him with a mix of suspicion and good humor.

“Good morning, Mr. Chesterfield,” Carrie said with a warm colorization of the practiced in-school formality (though no children were in evidence). “This is Dominic.”

Chesterfield extended his hand to the man’s which was already in motion. “How are you, sir?” he said.

The little man now smiled and looked him guilelessly in the eyes as they shook. “Pleased to meetcha.” Here too, Carrie Hahn had softened the way with a word.

“Dominic just stopped by to take any last Super Bowl bets,” Carrie said. “He’s still giving seven.”

“Like he’d have a clue,” Blow Torch muttered, meaning of course Chesterfield. The awestruck way she and Grime Bat regarded Dominic suggested that he held clues to both the Super Bowl and the hereafter.

Chesterfield held back. He was not, these past few days, unhappy. He no longer missed Deborah. Of course Hoepplewhite still rated thumbscrews, Drano enemas, al Quaeda death squads. But – only this nagged at Chesterfield – what innocent persons, known and unknown, might sit like ducks in the line of fire?

“You can put me down for five, Dom,” Carrie said.

Chesterfield blinked and came back to himself. Dom, she called him!

“You mean five large?” Dominic said, clearly charmed and pulling the girl’s leg.

“As if!” Carrie said, pushing on the little man’s puffy black sleeve. “Five little tiny ones.”

Was there not goodness here, something very dear? Five! Chesterfield was thinking how for several years he’d taken Deborah every Friday night to a friendly neighborhood Italian bistro they both enjoyed. In the two months she’d been gone he’d saved perhaps three hundred he would have spent…

“If it’s seven you’re giving, Dom,” he said, “put me down for a hundred.”

“I don’t f---ing believe it,” Grime Bat said. She turned to Dominic. “I put fifty down already on the Eagles before you came here. Put me down for fifty more, to win, and next season don’t be a stranger.”

Dominic, polite, good-humoured, earnest, seemed like any other good merchant who puts service first.

“My bad,” he said. “I figured yez are all women and being busy I let this building slide.” He nodded and smiled at Chesterfield, then turned back to Grime Bat and said, “I’d be very interested to know who you put the first fifty down with.”

At this, Chesterfield took his leave. Carrie Hahn was whispering something to Dominic as he turned toward his classroom.

 

▼▪▲

 

With his class off at gym Chesterfield took the chance to see Principal Muck about the lunchroom situation. Friendly as he was now with young Carrie, neither of them liked the two classes eating together. If he could have a word…

“F--- you!”

“No, f--- you!”

A shadow fled across the illuminated window that said:

 

Dr. Fay Muck

Principal

 

The door opened and another strange man stepped out. Blinking, red-nosed but with ashen jowls, he looked like he’d rolled here from tavern closing time, via the gutter. Thinning hair askew, he blinked again at Chesterfield, who stood frozen as if beholding some nightmare double.

“My name is Muck,” the man said.

“Of course,” Chesterfield said.

“We’ve got some things to sort out,” the man said, cocking his head to the closed door.

“Ah.” Chesterfield studied this poor wretch, thought of Fay Muck, and imagined a resident of Dresden sorting it out with the RAF. The lunchroom issue could wait…

“So who do you like in the game?” the man said.

Chesterfield was easing away. “Well, the Eagles should certainly cover.”

“I’ve got ‘em to win,” Muck said. “It’s all coming together now.”

“All luck to you,” Chesterfield said, fleeing. “In everything.”

 

▼▪▲

 

Granny Victoria was rallying yet again. This was happiness to Chesterfield, who loved his grandmother and regarded The Fortune increasingly with distaste and foreboding. Mother Daphne was of course curious but unhurried, while Captain Jack soldiered on with his wife, his pension, and his fond reflections on old conquests, military and other.

Far removed as Chesterfield stood already from The Fortune, he consciously put it even further. Might Daphne’s mere boozy mention to Deborah have been the germ that let in the Hoepplewhite incubus six years later? Imagine if The Fortune’s beneficiary were not a Ffoulkes/Chesterfield, but rather the improvident Mr. Mucks of the world? What human carnage would result?

“ …took out a second mortgage to bet on the Eagles… “

Right. It’s not the Hoepplewhites who need thinking of…

“ …and he like forged her signature.”

…it’s the poor sods who mean well and can’t help themselves, even including, Chesterfield decided in a burst of charity, the Blow Torches and Grime Bats, who are always with us.

And Chesterfield, bent on flaying Hoepplewhite, had trifled with those sods who, if they could be saved by no one but themselves, at least didn’t need being fed matches in the dynamite factories of their own tortured psyches.

At lunchtime he sought out Larry. Grime Bat and Blow Torch were electrified after doubling down that morning, and as Chesterfield entered the lounge, Grime Bat called out, “Here’s Braveheart himself. I guess you’ll win about ten bucks on your hundred dollars to cover.”

He allowed himself a small smile. “May we all reap as we have sown.”

He put a hand on the shoulder of Larry, who sat eating microwaved macaroni and cheese.

“We’re to the tech lab,” he said. “You don’t want to eat that anyway.”

 

▼▪▲

 

ALL BETS ON THE EAGLES TO WIN SHOULD BE TAKEN OFF NOW!!!

 

WE KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON’T.

 

TO TAKE YOUR BET OFF, GO TO THE LINK BELOW AND CLICK “CANCEL APP.”

 

“I never know whether we’re hurting this guy or helping him,” Larry said as he put the finishing touches on.

Chesterfield felt keenly that his loyal friend deserved recompense for all his efforts, even if in this case they came to nothing. It was a lady love before all else that Larry wanted and needed, and he was not at all a bad specimen. But what could be done?

“I confess I’m not certain myself. But I’m thinking not of him, but of the poor chumps.” Hoepplewhite was passing from his concern, his consciousness, his life; at least he hoped so.

“But,” Larry said, “the chumps are going to be chumps no matter what. This guy Hoepplewhite really did you, and just as your friend I’d like to break his legs with a sledge hammer. I’d like to smash his nose back into his brain.”

“Not a recourse characteristic of your excellent tribe,” Chesterfield said, “but those pleasures are not lost on me.”

Larry had his arrow on the Send button. “Well then,” he said, “are we done here?”

There was no knowing just what might have ensued, and that had been the intoxicating power of Larry’s design. The Eagles would assuredly cover yet lose; the chumps would have lost hearth, home, and Marcy; Hoepplewhite would first be picking through a billion dollars in loans gone bad; then once Chesterfield leaked his identity would have looked up to see the chumps advancing on him like Robespierre’s minions. It had had, as the football coaches say, potential.

“We’re done, old man,” he said to Larry. “Send it on.”

For all the allure of Larry’s design, Chesterfield felt it had come right in the end. He wished for Deborah and Hoepplewhite, if not the plundergelt they craved, at least no harm. And most importantly he sensed approval by the good old Anglican deity who made dogs and trout streams, has humour, and stands mostly out of the way.

 

▼▪▲

 

Public school teachers, unbeknownst to the larger public, are among its earliest risers. An 8:15 school day means usually the requirement to be in the building by 7:45. Civilising preparations – ablutions, tea or coffee, proper dress and grooming – take their own good time. Add an habitual three-mile dog run and you are necessarily up with the lark.

For Chesterfield this salutary yet iron regime did not go away of weekends. Sans alarm clock he awoke by six, generally with Daisy on the bed and licking his face. Super Bowl Saturday went by the script.

For the bone-chilling dawn he donned gym shorts and tee, topped the tee with cotton jersey, sweatshirt and finally windbreaker, and put lined nylon running pants over the shorts. Daisy got a wool body sweater and booties, and betimes Chesterfield would rub up her nose and ears.

For the game next day he was having over Carrie and Larry, neither of whom had nearby family and with whom he’d bonded in a unique attitude toward this contest. He wanted this morning to pick up two loaves from a wonderful and ancient Italian bakery where you could buy bread hot from the oven. The bakery being closed Sundays, he would take one loaf home to devour immediately with eggs, and freeze the other for his Super Bowl offering.

Chesterfield and Daisy trotted and puffed along the good old streets. Man and dog blew plumes of steam as they approached the bakery. It was housed in a ramshackle building near a strip mall whose tenants included Ripped & Shredded, the gymnasium where Deborah and Hoepplewhite had been members…

Chesterfield slowed himself and Daisy to a stroll. A blocky figure with hair of copper wire stepped out of the gym, bundled in goose down and carrying a large bag. Hoepplewhite, a natural fatso unnaturally preoccupied with arm and shoulder exercises, had built slabs of bunchy muscle onto his upper torso, which with his reddish hair made him into a sort of human gila monster. Here, in the grudging dawn, he was out from under his rock.

Chesterfield saw on the street the SUV with the vanity plate LOCK IN, and as casually as possible cut the owner off there.

“Well, Hoepplewhite.”

The gila monster’s eyes flared for a moment with fear, then assumed their normal lifelessness.

“Chesterfield.”

“How’s business?”

Hoepplewhite temporized by opening the truck door and throwing in his bag. Then he put on a triumphal smile. “It just gets better and better. If it all ended today I could retire.”

“A big frantic push to lock in before rates rise?” Chesterfield said, more provocatively than he might have meant to.

Hoepplewhite studied him. He seemed to have got his footing again, which Chesterfield resented.

“Oh sure. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? You finally learned to use a computer the past couple months, huh?”

Chesterfield snuck a glance toward the gym reception desk…

“Aha!” Hoepplewhite said.  “You’re busted, pal!  I knew it was you all the time.”

Chesterfield felt himself go white.  “Sorry?”  Daisy was growling at Hoepplewhite.

“I just saw you look at Jeanine in there.  Well for your information, I went ahead and banged her anyway. So I guess I should say thanks. Now I’m outta here.” Hoepplewhite climbed into the SUV. Chesterfield caught the door. Daisy lunged at Hoepplewhite’s ankle as it swung into the truck.

“You parasitic hyena,” Chesterfield said. “I challenge you to a duel tomorrow at noon, on the site of the late demolished Veteran's Stadium.”

“Are you nuts?” said Hoepplewhite, alarmed at the strength of this foe who scorned the gym.

“Firearms within city limits are naturally out of the question,” Chesterfield said. “We will duel with axes.”

“With what?” Hoepplewhite, with his free hand, turned the ignition.

“Doubtless you have no axe,” Chesterfield said, “but I have two. You just be there at noon, and bring a second.”

 Only the SUV itself had the strength to break Chesterfield’s hold on the door, and Hoepplewhite used it by flooring the gas pedal and ripping away.

Chesterfield stood with Daisy in the lurch, feeling soiled and shamed. Jeanine, forgive me, he thought.

 

▼▪▲

 

“Will you come with us to visit Granny today, dear?” Daphne said, serving him his eggs and bangers. It was nine a.m. on Super Sunday.

“Actually, Mother, I popped in on her late yesterday, because I’m quite booked today. I’m fighting a duel at noon and then I’ve got to run home and cook for my Super Bowl guests.”

“Well, that was very sweet of you. But you never allow yourself time enough, you cram things in so.”

“I don’t want any phone calls or any interruptions whatsoever from four p.m. to midnight,” Jack said. “I’ll be in the den with the doors closed.”

“Dad, don’t waste time on that pre-game rubbish. Kick-off’s at 6:18. Read your book, take a walk.”

Jack sipped his coffee and looked absently out into his tiny, frozen yard. “I could check out this duel of yours. Where is it again?”

“It’s all the way out at the Vet,” Chesterfield said.

“You’re not getting out of visiting my mother!” Daphne said.

“All right, all right.”

 

▼▪▲

 

Of course Jack didn’t miss anything. Leaving Daisy at home, Chesterfield arrived at the desolate Vet site ten minutes early. At 12:30 he packed his axes back into the car and left. The craven gila monster was safely back under his rock. What did this honorific victory mean against a shameless instinct for self-preservation? Certainly the Creator would approve the severance of Hoepplewhite’s picnic-ham neck, but He knew just as surely that His good soldier had lately played the pimp with a gullible, if dyed and inked, maiden.

Once he’d returned home and put away the axes, Chesterfield paced the foyer. Daisy, stirring from sleep, joined him. Perhaps Jeanine had been, like all the chumps, only too ready and willing to play with fire; perhaps we make our own beds; perhaps…

Perhaps bollocks. With Jeanine unatoned for, calling the bowsers off Hoepplewhite on Friday had been a sham gesture, and Provvy had summarily dished Chesterfield for it by presenting him on Saturday with a nemesis gloatingly unscathed and unregenerate.

Chesterfield pulled Daisy to him and knelt at the bottom of the good old staircase. Dispensing with puerile promises to attend this or that many church services, rejecting utterly any mercy toward Hoepplewhite, he asked simply forgiveness for Jeanine.

“Right,” he said, rising again, and he went and got cooking for his friends.

 

▼▪▲

 

The expected spiritual lift went missing as the Eagles, after drawing first blood, deteriorated into sandlot bungling. The gallant quarterback, Chesterfield’s favorite, repetitively chucked the ball toward the wrong jerseys. The egocentric wide receiver, who manifestly cared more about the spotlight than the team, was the only Philly standout. During time-outs a pampered young heiress, insensible to her generational peers on distant battlefields, vamped and preened in commercials. Not speaking of a superbly professional New England team, the wrong people were everywhere winning out…

With two minutes to play the Eagles trailed by ten. The game – The Game, in its larger sense – was up.

Chesterfield recognized his sin with Jeanine had been a large one. Provvy, however beneficent, is not one’s Pal, and not to be cavalierly treated as such. When you play human pawns, toward whatever cause, you’re throwing in with every Hoepplewhite who acts the locust with decent lives. Atonement for this would take time and, apparently, a sore lesson.

At the two-minute warning he wobbled to his feet, picked up his guests’ dirty dishes and took them to the sink. He had prepared chicken and spinach lasagna, and set out a gargantuan bottle of chianti, a year-old gift that had so embarrassed Deborah that she wouldn’t serve it, and from whose casing could be built a bamboo palace. Chesterfield, Larry and Carrie had drunk the bulk of it, and as the Eagles circled the drain, the imbibed plonk seemed to depress rather than elate the two men at least.

“You bums,” Larry scolded to the TV. “Those Eagles-to-win schmucks deserve what they get, but why do us smart guys have to lose money on this?”

“Because we’re not smart after all.” The game was already far from Chesterfield. Hoepplewhite remained near. Chesterfield scraped lasagna remnants into the garbage. His creation, so appetizing when he was hungry, now faintly disgusted him.

Carrie Hahn was at his elbow. She couldn’t not be helpful. She wore a flattering, body-hugging turtleneck and flannel slacks like Kate Hepburn’s. Her brown hair was cut short and pixieish, and her oval face was dominated by big ingenuous green eyes.

“Shall I cork the wine?” she said.

“Not if you want more.”

“Oh no. You?”

“No, I’m pipped,” Chesterfield said. He looked into those green eyes. “I’m sorry you’re losing your fiver.”

She smiled. “Haven’t lost it yet. There’s always hope!”

One can’t trifle with such innocence. Sure, he wanted to kiss her just this moment. But he, a josser of thirty-six, would eat his liver before touching this sweet child. A woman among men often wants and revels in a different kind of talk, a different kind of friend. It can work wonderfully both ways, but bloody men will bung it up every time…

Not this lad, thought Chesterfield.

Another commercial came on, as he and Carrie finished loading the dishwasher. How would they ever finish this game? A forty-minute halftime, a bombardment of programming promos… four hours now…

“I want to thank you guys,” Carrie said when they were seated again, “for not mentioning that Hoepplewhite all evening. Talk about a bum!”

“Come again?” Chesterfield felt a tectonic jolt, plates from different strata scraping on one another. What was Hoepplewhite to her?

“Oh God,” Carrie said, “Larry’s so mad you let that guy off the hook after what he did to you.”

“Oh,” Chesterfield said. “Is Larry?”

Larry slumped dejectedly in his chair. The hangdog Eagles broke the huddle. Larry, eyes fixed on the screen, desultorily waved a hand in the air. “Context,” he said. “Context, please.”

“Right, Larry,” Chesterfield gritted. “What’s the context, old boy?”

“Let her tell you,” Larry said.

“Well,” Carrie said, “Larry says you could have ruined the guy but you didn’t because you’re a gentleman of the old school. And he’s mad but I think it’s just the best to know a man whose mercy is not strained!”

God, she was a stellar girl, but Hoepplewhite breathing free air blighted everything.

Larry, his chin on his chest, said, “You shouldn’t let people like that off the hook.”

No, you shouldn’t… but if a villain won’t come out to be killed…

 The Eagles ran a play to nowhere as the clock ticked down. They would assuredly lose and fail to cover.

“Well,” young Carrie said, “fear not. Dominic’s on the case.”

“Sorry?” With a minute and a half remaining, Chesterfield was off in a funk.

Daisy, who had been resting on the rug between them and the TV, stretched then climbed into the lap of Carrie, who stroked her long ears.

Carrie said, “You know how Dominic was so curious to know who else was taking football action, like for Arlene and Suzette?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m like, who’s taking more action than this bum Hoepplewhite? So I told Dom.”

Oh rare, Chesterfield thought. “And Dom replied?” he said.

The girl made a winsome face and stroked Daisy, who lay blissed out in her arms. “He’s such a dear. He said he’s buried all weekend with family stuff, church, his kid’s hockey game, a Super Bowl party. But he said he’d get on it first thing Monday, and he thanked me very much.”

At that, the Eagles’ cheerful warrior quarterback threw over the top not to the diva star receiver, but to a young unknown, for a touchdown. The extra point brought the deficit to three. The Eagles had covered. Contra Grime Bat’s jeer, Chesterfield had quadrupled his hundred, Carrie her five.

Larry leapt from his chair. “Oofah!” he bellowed, rending the air with his fist.

“Oh yay!” said young Carrie, still with Daisy in her lap.

Larry pointed to Carrie and said, “Tell Dom that’s Hoepplewhite with an ‘O.’ Benedict Hoepplewhite.”

Provvy, thought Chesterfield. He reached across and took young Carrie’s hand. “Will you be my pal?” he said.

“I am your pal,” she said.

Daisy licked their joined hands. Small p, Chesterfield thought. Right.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

March: Chesterfield Gets a Date

 

 

 “Mr. Chesterfield, your wife’s here. I’m sending her down.” Click.

He replaced the faculty room phone. The first eyes his met were those of Grime Bat, third grade teacher and pitiless matron. Not the girl to share with…

“Jesus, who died?” said Larry.

Chesterfield turned to his friend. “Deborah’s in the building.”

Here?” Larry’s alarm, and Chesterfield’s own sense that his face had combusted, spoke to an imperfect preparation for –

“Hi! Am I interrupting anything?”

Deborah of course looked smashing. It was late winter and her complexion betrayed no weather cracking. Her lush auburn hair welled up from her coat collar and her brown eyes were bright and lovely, made up so deftly that they appeared God’s work.

Chesterfield stood. He sensed Berkowitz goggling behind him, as if Aeon Flux, say, had stepped out of the cyberboffen that was Larry’s nearest erotic realm.

“Well, dear,” Chesterfield said, taking Deborah’s hands in his. “Welcome to the fetid bowels, and all that.”

“Ew!” Deborah pulled back.

“Yeah, ew!” parroted Blow Torch Borch. “You’re the bowels, not us.”

Chesterfield only winced. A literate teaching professional knows that no intact homo sapiens can “be the bowels.” He gestured to his seated colleagues and said to Deborah, “You know the gang, I think.”

Deborah skimmed a negligent glance across the table. “Sure.” Then she inclined her face to his ear and whispered, “Can we step outside?”

 

▼▪▲

 

They entered a corridor ghostly quiet, as students were either in the cafeteria or at recess.

“So where’s ‘young Carrie’?” Deborah said before he could shut the door behind them.

Internally Chesterfield checked up at this, like a battlefield horse scenting blood. But by will he made his feet move, and with his hand at her back he pressed her toward the front entrance.

“Where’s friend Hoepplewhite?” he countered, playing it more low down perhaps than he ought. Hoepplewhite was done for, and done with, and grotty as the whole affair had been, as a gentleman Chesterfield had vowed always to ascribe the guilt to that jackal rather than to his wife.

“Don’t try turning the tables,“ Deborah said. “Where have you hidden the little b---- ?”

“Steady, dear.” Chesterfield heard the faculty door open behind them.

“Hey Chest,” called Larry Berkowitz, who stood in the doorway holding a Styrofoam bowl. “Remember Carrie’s soup. She’s a bear when she doesn’t get it.”

Carrie Hahn wouldn’t know how to be a bear, or a weasel, minx, or muskrat. Carrie Hahn was an angel of Providence.

Chesterfield affected a bluff chortle even as he glared daggers at Larry. “Nice try, you rascal! You and Miss Hahn aren’t fooling anyone.” He glanced at Deborah to see – fat chance! -- if she’d bought it.

It was asking too much that Larry, on blundering into the good old sex wars, should take a hint. He walked up to them and put the soup to Chesterfield. “Seriously,” he said. “I figured with the interruption you forgot.”

“Oh, all right,” Chesterfield said. “I’ll play up, you dog.”

“Thank you so much, Larry,” Deborah icily said. “To paraphrase Deep Throat, I shall follow the soup.”

Larry retreated in bafflement, and perhaps in fear she’d vaporize him with death rays from the eyes. Chesterfield would have approved it.

 

▼▪▲

 

Bloody rotten soup! Dicey as this was, how really like a nightmare to have Deborah rampaging these halls, Chesterfield held the crucial advantage of home turf. Carrie Hahn, he knew, was ensconced in her classroom in the rear wing. If he could nudge Deborah onward toward the front –

“Well, hello Chesterfields! What a wonderful sight this is!”

Principal Fay Muck was a right Janus. Her delight at seeing Chesterfields, plural, followed on a daily dismay at seeing Chesterfield the one.

“Why, Ms. Muck. So good of you to remember Deborah.”

La Muck, with a frozen smile plastered on, looked for an interminable instant anxiously back and forth between the couple.

“How’s your husband?” Deborah said without interest.

Chesterfield cleared his throat. Le Muck, a degenerate gambler of the Dominic-customer sort, had been hoofed out by La.

“Who knows? Who cares?” Fay Muck issued a screech-owl laugh that did nothing for ice-breaking.

“Well,” Chesterfield said. The soup cooled in his hands.

“I hear ya,” Deborah said to Muck.

Hear what? Chesterfield only heard himself being defamed. What if he were to slip the soup to Muck and simply walk away? That would extricate him from both hussies at a stroke, though it might leave them assessing his sanity, and tenure loopholes…

“Ah, look at the time,” he said instead. “Must retrieve my tribe from lunch.”

Speaking of, here came the worst of the lot, the Piltdown-ish Dylan Czarnecki, escorted by and brawling with a luckless cafeteria aide.

Deborah gave Chesterfield a savage look. “Aren’t you forgetting your little errand?” she said with open malice, as if Fay Muck were in Bulgaria.

This tepid soup would light the way to dusty death…

Dylan Czarnecki, bless his bestial heart, picked this moment to throw an elbow that caught the poor aide on the collarbone and gave her a good rattle. The brawlers were fifteen feet from Chesterfield, and closing.

Fay Muck, back from Bulgaria, bellowed “Hey! You!”

Out, out…

Chesterfield waded into the brawl and, just as Czarnecki flailed his arm round, pitched the bowl’s blood-red contents onto the young villain. Judging that he’d made a good show of receiving not dealing aggression, Chesterfield in the same motion spun just far enough to whip some dregs onto Deborah. Though her dark coat absorbed the liquid almost invisibly, a pleasing red spatter dashed the white tights encasing her legs.

As his wife howled oaths that would blanch a wharf rat, Chesterfield played it out for Fay Muck.

“Leave him to me!” he barked, clamping Dylan by the neck, at which the filthy bugger went starched and straight as Mrs. Dalloway’s sheets.

“You can’t touch me!” raged the hulking, reeking, girl-tormenting bully as Chesterfield bore him on toward the office, with Muck and Deborah immersed in red puddles behind him.

“You’re for the jug-house now,” he told Dylan Czarnecki. “A week’s suspension at the least.” A classroom cleansed of strife and B.O., an arcadian week of happy sixth graders all below drinking age…

That soup was a stone that killed two birds. Carrie Angel…

 

▼▪▲

 

“About your soup.”

Carrie Hahn turned to face him, and as she did her glossy brown hair, cut just above the shoulders, danced and swung like a silk scarf cast to the breeze.

“What soup?” she said poker-faced. Then she smiled as if complicit in its destruction. She knew what soup, and saw he hadn’t it, and so it didn’t exist, and so was past going into. She was like that.

Chesterfield gingerly eased his way into her kinderlair, where everything it seemed was below the knees. On the walls were no sappy accoutrements of the free-poster, “Hang in there, baby,” kitten and puppy sort. There was a giant erasable calendar encircled by photos of her students. Elsewhere were photos of Venice, of Paris, of the Great Barrier Reef. And photos of Cyrus, the yellow lab Carrie had told him of. Chesterfield warmly thought of Daisy… but were dog introductions the done thing with a maiden colleague?

“So I owe you a lunch,” he said. “How’s Sunday?”

She met him halfway amongst the tiny desks with which he imagined he could shoe himself. He towered eight inches above her, but in black cord pants and pink cotton turtleneck she stood before him in a comfortable expectancy.

“Actually, I think I’ll eat before then,” she said. It was Tuesday.

He gave the point. “Right. Thing is, my parents make a Sunday brunch that I and my friends stop at all the time. They’ve been wanting you brought round… and of course Larry.”

She looked down and smiled. “Of course Larry. That would be lovely.”

“About my dad,” he intoned portentously.

“Is he British?”

“Oh no. He’s a retired Marine captain. Thing is – “

“That’s so weird,” she said. “I could swear – “

“Not so weird really. What’s weird is he’ll want to seduce you.”

Excuse me?”

“Right. But no cost. Just tell him to stuff it and all’s jolly.”

“Ooh-kay. And your mom?”

“She’s British.”

Carrie Hahn chucked him on the breastbone. “That’s not what I’m getting at!”

Chesterfield absorbed this wee blow as if it were a falling rose petal. “Let us say,” he said, “that my folks are tolerant of eccentricities, above all each other’s.”

“You and Larry better defend my honor,” she said.

The sweet play of this brought him nearly to gasp with strange joy. But a Ffoulkes/Chesterfield can wear the mask…

“Do bring Cyrus,” he said, “as we’re all dog people. You can turn him loose on Dad if need be. Larry as our guest must be free to eat.” He turned toward the door.

“So about my soup,” she said, chaffing him, recurring pleasurably to prologue.

“My wife’s wearing it,” he said, and ducked out into the hall.

He heard her say “Oh my god!” and something unintelligible, decrescendoing, as he hurried back to his happy tribe.

 

▼▪▲

 

“So about my soup.”

What it amounted to was that they had begun The Conversation, the one that goes on for ever and ever…

He had a steak grilling on the back porch, and Daisy back from their walk and chowing, when the phone rang. It was the evening of Bloody (Soup) Tuesday.

“Hello.”

“I’ll give you the dry-cleaning bill when I see you Saturday,” Deborah said.

“By all means the bill, dear. But what’s Saturday?”

“We’re going out to dinner at La Boucherie. Then back to your place.”

“Back to our house, I think you mean,” Chesterfield amended, out of propriety, not ardor. Where had ardor gone?

“The day will come to sort all that out. I like the sound of ‘back to your place.’” Deborah, with her speed dating and God knew what else, liked the sounds of a lot of loathsome things these days.

“Well,” Chesterfield said, “if you can’t do better.”

“I know you can’t,” Deborah said.

 

▼▪▲

 

You could almost, in the pithy phrasing of Mr. T, pity the fool. The bulky, muscle-bound body had degraded from its hedgehog scuttle to a thrashing of crutches and white plaster, the bull neck and coppery head bobbing like a turkey’s…

Chesterfield, running with Daisy through an exurban district of little shops and coffee bars, paused in a fascination to see this creature attempt to mount the SUV with now-mocking LOCK IN vanity plates.

Hoepplewhite, who all along had been short and stout, was quite the little tea-pot now, with left arm and right leg in casts.

Chesterfield was far from gloating; rather, he spoke because one does not run from this.

“Hoepplewhite.” Daisy growled as he said this.

His old foe ignored him as he reached awkwardly across his body to the truck door and almost fell.

“F--- ! Piece of s--- !” Finally he looked at Chesterfield, and his face contorted as if his neck had tweaked him. “What do you want?”

Chesterfield stood easy. Pity did not in fact come, but neither did spite or gladness. “Not a thing,” he said. “It’s a shame. Really it is. How are you coming?”

Hoepplewhite leaned back against the truck, grateful perhaps to rest a moment before the final assault on the stupidly high driver’s seat.

“Not as bad as you think, pal. I got Jeanine coming over to cook and clean and throw me a bang every few days.”

“Ah,” Chesterfield said. “Well.”

“Hey, your slut of a wife said she’s gone back to you.”

“Has she?” Perhaps Deborah had found this useful. Perhaps she believed it true…

Chesterfield jingled Daisy’s leash and walked away. Wait a minute, he thought. The villain wants thrashing for what he said just now about Deborah. Oh never mind…

“I’ll be back,” Hoepplewhite called after him. “Count on it.”

“Come the fine day you’re top o’ the world,” Chesterfield tossed back, “tell it to your old ma. Don’t bother me.”

 

▼▪▲

 

 Deborah was a very desirable woman. Their intimacy, which against the tenor of the times he discussed with no one, had been intense. Certainly it had gnawed within Chesterfield through all the unquiet nights since her parting. But she had waited a fatal tad long to insinuate her lovely self back into his nights – and a single measly Saturday night at that. Chesterfield wanted none of it. He wanted…

But no gentleman, only a swine, subjects a woman to the indignity of divorce. He is at her disposal, and must lump the consequences. So what was to be done about this ghastly dinner date, which cast a pall now over the fresh-dawn Sunday to follow?

“About my soup.”

When he replied “My wife’s wearing it,” he was fleeing the room but hardly The Conversation. It is a biggish disclosure for a gentleman to tell a maiden she is linked by physical substance to the gentleman’s wife. Even in such fallen times as these, the better sort of maiden -- like Carrie Hahn – will react. And so – “Oh my god!” – The Conversation lived.

 

▼▪▲

 

If he could survive to Sunday.

Bryng!

“Hello.”

“My dear,” his mother Daphne said, “your father’s just beside himself with anticipation.”

“Well, if the self he’s beside wears a skirt, it’s in trouble.”

“Is your new friend really ready for this?”

“She’s bringing her dog, Mother. A big one.”

“Oh goody.”

“It is goody, as we know that even at sixty-six Dad reckons he’s got five appendages still too dear to lose.”

“Right,” Daphne said. “I don’t suppose he’ll be pushing on through the dog.”

In the event she was still dubious, Chesterfield said, “Well, for all his talk he never veered hard toward Deborah, and I’m no attack dog.”

“Now, darling, you are positively a killer and no mistake. It’s why Deborah will never let you go.”

Saturday night’s prospective “hook-up” came back to him with a revolting and forcible clap.

“Speaking of Deborah, and mistakes – I trust, Mother, that there’ll be no Fortune talk on Sunday.”

“Pish posh,” she said. “I haven’t had three Manhattans since your rehearsal dinner.”

 “Can you assure me, then,” Chesterfield said, “that mimosas on Sunday won’t produce another infamous result?” Only listen to yourself, he suddenly thought; you are presuming of Carrie Hahn either something monstrous or unconscionably premature. It was panic rising… it was the dinner date!

“Have you considered, dear,” Daphne said, “that Deborah might actually desire your person more than she does my mother’s money?”

“Then back to your place.” It was just thinkable…

 

▼▪▲

 

Then again, Deborah might not want or require full possession of his person -- merely its one-night’s rental.

Bryng!

“Hello.”

Deborah directly said, “I wasn’t as gracious as I might have been the other night.”

 Chesterfield had been reading, with Daisy on the couch against him, her head in his lap.

“Don’t give it a thought, dear,” he said.

“No, honestly. And me saying you can’t do better – that was uncalled for.”

“Not called for by me, certainly.”

“My belief is you could do damn well, and so will I.”

He took note of her choice of tense. “Ah,” was all he said.

She let a moment pass. Then she said, “Haven’t you ever felt any paternal stirrings since we first got together?”

“You know I did have,” Chesterfield said, fixing his own verb tense with care. The immemorial way of the Ffoulkes was to bear one child to a generation: Victoria, Daphne, next Chesterfield, who had been only too ready to do his happy duty from the day he married Deborah. But she had put it off…

“If you say so,” she said. “Maybe you should have pressed the issue.”

This casual revisionism bore with it a whiff of evil. “I’m sure it’s for the best,” he said.

He heard only the faint intake of her breath. Then: “How dare you.”

“You propose to be the speed dating mother of my children? Thank you, no.” “Who are you, Doctor Laura?” she said. “Let’s just take it as it comes for a while. Saturday night is going to be hot. Promise.”

“I shall wear my trousers rolled,” he said, and rang off. The woman who next unrolls ‘em, he thought, will be the woman who’s in for keeps. As I was, and will be.

 

▼▪▲

 

Presumably Deborah wanted to ”hook up” once every other week or so, then leave like a thief. And get a baby in the bargain. And a chunk of The Fortune down the line.

Thank you, no.

Chesterfield woke up shaking in the night.

He hung fire, with eyes burning, till five a.m., when Jack Chesterfield habitually rose.

His call was picked up after two rings.

“Semper Fi.”

“When was the last time you played hero?” Chesterfield said.

“Never.”

“Not during Tet? Not in the Delta?”

“All the heroes are dead.”

Chesterfield shifted tacks. “How’d you like to be Deborah’s hero?”

This produced a pause. “I think she’s immune to my charms. Though I’d get a small piece of her on Christmas Eve.”

“The mistletoe being your pretext, streets from where she stood.”

“Like with hand grenades, close enough.”

“Dad,” Chesterfield said, “this Saturday night I may be called to battle.”

“Yes?”

“Right. Now, a French restaurant is not the Mekong. But villains may appear.”

“Hoepplewhite? He ran from you once.”

“Evil could wear any face this night.”

“Where’s Deborah in this?” Jack said.

“It’s her you’ll be there for. If I go down, you look to her, not me.”

“Time and place?”

“La Boucherie, eight o’clock. Lie low till the fur flies.”

“Check.”

 

▼▪▲

 

Chesterfield had won four hundred dollars from the bookie Dominic, in the same Super Bowl intrigue that broke Hoepplewhite (physically and financially). The typical thirty-six year-old American male would have long since spent the winnings on a Callaway driver or satellite radio. But a Ffoulkes/Chesterfield is nothing if not provident. “You’ll have earned it,” he told Larry Berkowitz, as he handed Larry four crisp hundred dollar bills in the faculty room. “Remember you’ll likely get biffed, but we men were meant to bleed. We never win or keep our women else, and that’s what we’re putting next in your future, once this campaign is won.”

“I won’t let you down,” Larry said.

“I know you won’t,” Chesterfield said. “Carrie of course must be spared the baser details.”

“But she wants them.”

“Stellar girl.”

“She’s curious about your wife.”

Chesterfield felt a tingle of panic at this, a sense of one’s toe dipping into the Rubicon. He looked to the end of the table, where Grime Bat and Blow Torch, having noticed the cash exchange, were goggling at them.

“Tell her I need her,” he told Larry. “That is, I really need her to play it out.”

“You tell her.”

Chesterfield stood. “I can’t,” he said, and left the room.

 

▼▪▲

 

La Boucherie was one of those compromised French places with a menu mostly in English. That was as it should be. It will not do for those fellows to come seeking one’s custom in one’s own land, and pretend they’re running the Tour D’Argent.

Chesterfield and Deborah stepped out of a gusty March night, exchanged bon soirs with the maitre d’, and advanced to the young gentleman checking coats.

Deborah let the boy tug her coat off from behind.

Well, I never, Trevor…

The dress was a glossy and luxuriant kelly green, cut lower than underthings could be devised to, well, underlie. The cleavage, real and spectacular, was simply the Western Front, Flanders to Switzerland. A sensationally lurid ruby pendant menaced from above, seeking specific gravity.

“Lovely, dear.”

One might assume an acculturated, if not born, gentleman to be little moved by sheer female splendor. In the case of Chesterfield, one would be wrong.

“Thanks.” Deborah knew well enough that understatement in Chesterfield was no sign of indifference.

They were seated. With every gesture, with every breath, every glance and physical inclination, Deborah rippled, crested, flowed like seductive tropical waves. She washed over Chesterfield, and his pulse hammered in his veins. Ten weeks now…

They settled into a bottle of cabernet. Deborah reached across the table, dipping provocatively, and clinked his glass.

“To life,” she said.

“Flashing before me,” he replied, wrenching his gaze, with effort, upwards into her eyes.

The restaurant had one largish dining room and a smaller, darker room for the bar. Chesterfield, facing that small room, could see the customers’ side of the bar, dark wood and richly varnished. Occasionally the bartender’s sleeve, white and cufflinked, would snake out from behind the entrance wall. Standing at the bar was a large man, about Chesterfield’s height of six-foot one, but bulkier. He wore a handsome loden jacket, white shirt and tie, and an enormous Borsalino hat that obscured much of his face. Standing with a bottle and aperitif glass, Jack Chesterfield suggested an amalgam of Luca Brasi, and a gunslinger with his red-eye.

Deborah had one elbow on the table, and held her wine glass so its base nearly touched one breast. “Our life together,” she said, “was lovely in so many ways.”

“Was it?” Chesterfield saw his father put an index finger to the side of his nose, a pointless sign of acknowledgment.

“Absolutely,” Deborah said. “Wouldn’t it be liberating – in the truest sense – to take from life its most instinctual joys, and reject its institutional rot and moralistic preachings?”

“Ah,” Chesterfield said. “The mind-forged manacles. Dicky old stuff like marriage, duty, the rule of law.” He gulped at his wine.

She tipped forward again and touched his hand with her free one. “You are an instinctual man. I know that.”

Chesterfield, in thrall to her murmurous voice, her too-perfect flesh and flowery scent, was beginning to have “ideas.” He drained his glass.

Deborah was saying that “non-conformists” were generally grey and grotty little cranks whom one can only pity and avoid. But if one has worldly station, and means, and looks and taste, one should be able to take of the world’s pleasures, and keep only those traditions that make sense and augment pleasure, without guilt or fear of stigma.

“I am your lover,” she concluded. “We don’t belong sharing a bathroom and knocking into each other around the kitchen.”

Isn’t it Milton’s Satan, Chesterfield wondered, who becomes the mist, the foe who enters where he will and can’t be fenced out? Or is cabernet the mist, into which all my principles as a gentleman will dissolve? His head reeled. Bosoms the mist…

“Geez Louise,” Deborah said. “Enjoy the wine, but pace yourself.”

“Right,” he said, and put the bottle back down. “The night is young, and all that.” Back to your place. If I surrender to this mist, be it liquid or flesh, I will, in Churchill’s words, go to hell as soon as there is vacant passage.

At that moment, Larry Berkowitz and Carrie Hahn walked in. Both carried coats to their table thirty feet from the Chesterfields, nearer to the small room and bar. So Larry, with four hundred iron men from Chesterfield in his pocket, had cheaped out and stiffed the coat-check lad.

Jack Chesterfield wouldn’t know Carrie and Larry from Adam and Eve, while Deborah of course knew only Larry. Chesterfield had to finesse this…

“Why, the confounded ass,” he said to Deborah. “Berkowitz has brought his date here.”

“What?”

“Hasn’t had a date since his junior prom. Said he’d got one for this weekend. I mentioned we were coming here. Can you believe it?”

“Surely you didn’t invite him,” Deborah said, as she studied the couple, coats draped over their chairs, who looked more sibling than romantic in attitude. “I mean, if you’ve made this a double date I’ll have your male parts on a pike.”

“Good God, no,” Chesterfield said. “I never dreamed. He’s pretty assy in the social graces, but I never conceived he’d blunder in here.”

“He’s looking around,” Deborah said. “There he sees us!”

“Courage, dear.” Chesterfield suavely raised his empty wine glass and saluted Berkowitz who squinted dumbly at them. Chesterfield mouthed “Cheers,” and immediately turned back to Deborah.

“That’ll freeze ‘em for now,” he said. “They’ve been acknowledged, and politely cut. We’ll stop at their table just briefly between dinner and coffee.”

“Well handled,” Deborah said. “What would possess that idiot to come here?”

“He’s a great soul but not confident. My guess is that our coming here is to him both a seal of approval and a security blanket if things start downhill with the girl.”

“She’s cute enough,” Deborah said. “Dressed like that she’s not his hired tart.”

Carrie Hahn sat with her hands in her lap and never looked at them. She wore a calf-length black wool skirt, a long-sleeved white blouse, stockings and two-inch heels. With a tasteful gold necklace she resembled a slightly racy nun.

“She’s fine,” Chesterfield said (he hoped neutrally). Larry on the other hand could not have been less fine for La Boucherie, looking like a dentist on poker night in cardigan sweater and Dockers.

Jack Chesterfield had noticed Chesterfield’s toast to Larry, and from under his black brim stared at the new couple. Perhaps he was wondering: What villains?

Chesterfield for his part wondered, in the words of that sordid pop vixen so beloved of his lesser-achieving female sixth-graders: What is going to get this party started?

Larry, so the aggressor in his fantasies and at his keyboard, was his usual passive public self now, sipping at his water while Carrie Hahn stole a bestranded look at the Chesterfields.

“I say, Robert,” Chesterfield said, catching the waiter whose name he knew from a quite operatic introduction, “send by me a drink to our friends over there. A half-bottle of this excellent cabernet for the lady, and a double Seven and Seven for the gentleman.”

Larry, Chesterfield knew, had very poor and unhappy brains for drinking. If I can fasten but one cup upon him…

“Can we forget them?” Deborah said. “At least till after dinner?”

“Forget whom?” Chesterfield said, and forced a smile. At the memory of Carrie Hahn’s winsome and forgiving “What soup?” his smile became less faked and genuinely fond. Then he caught himself and squelched it. Presumably Deborah wanted him to enjoy himself, but wished that enjoyment to emanate from her own charms.

And it is to be remembered that those charms were acting very powerfully on Chesterfield the organism. Back to your place. The resort to excitable syrups, the sending of whiskey drowned in soda pop to catalyze the slug Berkowitz, was all to prevent Chesterfield winging to perdition in the arms of this seductive stranger his wife…

While Larry’s potion took effect there was nothing for it but to concentrate on Deborah...

“Do you have any idea,” she said, slightly panting, “what I’m going to do with you back at your place?”

Conceive triplets, Chesterfield feared, considering the mist of fertility wafting off her, which roused him in like kind.

In the next room, Borsalino Jack looked slightly dejected as time stuck and no hostilities threatened.

What was Berkowitz thinking? But, Chesterfield thought gloomily, it’s all my own muck-up. One can’t ask an inward-type, wallflower lad to pull off a mock date and a mock fight in one evening when he hasn’t done either in his lifetime for real…

Deborah was saying, “I’d love to play with Daisy, but please don’t let’s touch her when we get back to your place. Do put her out.”

His desire to check the other table, and young Carrie, was like a furious itch, yet Chesterfield allowed Deborah’s brown eyes to continue devouring his. As soon as she looked to her wine glass, he shot a fast glance over. As he returned his gaze to Deborah, the surreal image he retained, which must have been a trick of the mind’s eye, was of Carrie Hahn taking a stevedore’s slug from Larry’s Seven and Seven…

“What’re you lookin’ at?”

If this at last was Berkowitz’ challenge, he was by way of throwing his voice through a gutter strumpet. But when Chesterfield looked back over he saw the same back of Larry’s head he’d seen before. Carrie Hahn meanwhile was drilling him with her own eyes.

“Yeah, you!” she said. “You think buyin’ me a drink gives you the right to look me over like a piece of meat?”

“Excuse me?” Deborah said.

“I… I assure you, miss,” Chesterfield said, “I meant no such thing.”

Carrie looked to Larry and said, “Go take care of it.”

Chesterfield, snapping to the new paradigm, rose in his chair. He must needs be no wild man, simply put himself in range.

Larry, never a quick snapper, sat befuddled, looking back and forth between his two friends.

“I said, take care of the guy,” Carrie told him, even more sinisterly.

Chesterfield had already rejected cartoon aggression in his own performance. Something else must bring Larry out of his chair. He advanced on Berkowitz and kept his eyes off Carrie.

“It’s all a nothing, old man,” Chesterfield said. “Let’s shake on it.”

“Get back here!” Deborah called, but Chesterfield pressed ahead.

Larry stood. They clasped hands. Chesterfield put an arm round Larry’s shoulders and whispered, “If you’ve got one punch in you for a lifetime, by the living God throw it now!”

Larry, two inches shorter, with the build of an uncoordinated spider, waved a paw that nestled against the jaw of Chesterfield, who crashed to the floor.

“Oh my God!” Deborah shrieked.

“Sacred Blue!” Robert the waiter wailed.

“That’ll show him!” Carrie Hahn said.

Chesterfield decided that Larry’s papier-mache punch should have done him inner-ear damage, so that he could raise up, survey the field, whisper commands if need be, then flop again. His model was Trevor Berbick, who in effect had been knocked out three times by one Mike Tyson punch.

He pushed himself up with one arm and hissed to Larry, “Put a hundred on the table to pay.” The remaining three hundred, he thought as he swooned back to the floor, you’ll be earning directly. You poor sod…

Payday, apocalyptic as all our yesterdays, arrived with Jack Chesterfield. Larry simply disappeared behind great loden shoulders and the black Borsalino. Next he was seen flying through the air before a wall intervened.

“Son,” Jack said. “Can you hear me?”

“Leave me, damn you!” Chesterfield said, splaying himself like a man fallen from a ladder. “Get Deborah out of here!”

His father had had a solid half hour to get a load of Deborah and didn’t need telling twice. But a good soldier before taking up with the Sabines will first ensure the enemy is out of commission. Jack seized a dazed Larry…

“Unhand him!” Chesterfield hissed. “He’s a pal. Shove off!”

Next day at brunch, Larry, fingering his lumps, would say it was no worse than Chesterfield had promised, and a sight more pleasant and profitable than professional review by Fay Muck…

Perhaps fifteen seconds had elapsed. Captain Jack was scooping up Deborah. Larry was the pulverised heap that Chesterfield only affected to model. Carrie Hahn was standing over him, a goddess looking down on the fools that mortals be.

She said, “I’m so sor – “

“Stash that bloody wine bottle in your coat,” Chesterfield said. “It’s paid for and wasting.” He’d retrieve his own coat next day, in the event Deborah hadn’t it already by then on eBay.

He leaped to his feet and took Carrie’s hand. “Let’s go,” he said.

“But Larry… “

“ …will be right on time for brunch.”

They took the Goodfellas tour through the bowels of the brasserie. Wait staff and sous chefs in filthy white scattered clucking like barnyard chickens as Chesterfield and Carrie dashed through and out the back.

They emerged into an alley that felt greasy beneath the shoes. Chesterfield peeked round a corner out to the street. Captain Jack had one arm over Deborah’s luminous bare shoulders, his opposite hand on her hip, bearing her toward his car. When he heard them roar off, Chesterfield gently tugged at Carrie’s hand, and they stepped out into the street.

They stood under a street light and studied one another. Her eyes were bright but he saw a question forming. Quickly he said, “You’ve saved my bacon.” He chuckled. “Larry froze, eh?”

She wasn’t having it. “It was… fun. But you were at dinner with your wife.”

No running from this. “A terrible summons which I answered out of duty alone. Do you accept my word as a gentleman on that?”

She stepped close to him. The bottle in her coat lodged between them. “I do,” she said.

A breeze swept down the street, the first in five months that seemed to come from someplace warm and habitable.

“I say,” Chesterfield said. “Does your Cyrus take it hard when you leave him home alone?”

“Oh my God. He’s an absolute bear.” She circled an arm round his, and they began to walk.

“Daisy too, doubtless ripping my stuffings out as we speak.” He enmeshed Carrie’s fingers in his own. “Let’s go collect both hellhounds and walk ‘em together. Boy, girl, boy, girl, what?”

And so breaks the long unquiet winter…

“Date,” Carrie Hahn said. “I’ll show you the way back to my place.”

The breeze, the girl… no talk of a fortune that might or might not be. She’s looking at you, mate, not at it.

Which makes her, for good and for keeping, your fortune that is.

 

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