The first time Millstein rose from bed, sodden with perspiration, it was just shy of midnight. The cause: a vivid dream which had tormented him nightly over the last month that he was still married to Bibi and had just gotten the phone call about an auto accident involving her and their friend Mitchell. Breathing heavily, he stood in front of the wall fan, raised the shade and peered out blinking through a milky haze to the six story brick building across the street. Several apartments had their lights shining. These people don’t work? Millstein wondered. They have rich parents? An hour or so later he sat upright howling from a piercing fist-sized cramp in his right calf. After trying to knead the deep soreness out with his thumbs he stumbled headlong to the toilet. Then, at three thirty, Milstein shuddered, clutching his heart and trembling with dread over some impending cataclysm the nature of which he could not form into words, except that it involved water, massive volumes of gushing water. Groaning, he socked the pillow, tempted to switch the lights on, make coffee and be done with it. Wednesday was full of presentations though, he had a mountain of files to review, and he recalled the solemn promise he’d given yesterday to Getlin, his supervisor, to forge himself back into some semblance of steel, so he lay in bed and invited sleep again, doubting it would come. The alarm jarred him to attention at five fifty. Eight hours, a few palpitations, awakened just three times. Count your blessings not sorrows, he thought, splashing his puffy eyes with cold water.
Lately Millstein’s work as senior insurance underwriter at M&J International had begun to suffer. Some days he could barely drag himself to the office, his once renowned powers of concentration had withered and Getlin had even dismissed him early Monday after catching Millstein in his cubicle before lunch with bifocals off, shoulders hunched, and his sad graying head on the desk.
“Such a thing in my department is unprecedented,” Getlin told him first thing Tuesday morning, consternation narrowing his face.“Dozing off? Completely unacceptable. What, may I inquire, is going on?”
Millstein studied the blotchy hands knotted together in his lap as though they belonged to someone else, someone older. “Sleep,” he said, his veiny temples dampening. “Or, lack thereof.”
They were not close, but having worked under Getlin for over thirteen years he knew that this was not an unsympathetic man. During the Great Recession, when a tide of seemingly indiscriminate layoffs had swept away one valued long term employee after another, his boss had assured him not to worry, that the company would survive intact and as long as he had any say, Millstein would remain untouchable. Several times over the course of their association Millstein had run afoul of one of the Vice Presidents for writing questionable policies that had accrued substantial losses for the company, but Getlin had always championed him, pointing out the sheer volume of business he processed and the discipline with which he researched each assignment, in addition to reminding them that without incurring at least some measure of risk, there was little chance of prospering. In truth, Getlin secretly attributed his streak of earning full annual bonuses for twelve years, and the comfortable nest egg he’d therefore accumulated, to Millstein’s workhorse ethic and unbroken record of devotion to M&J. He also felt a strange kinship with the man, not to mention occasional twinges of guilt for underpaying him. Still, the two had never before had occasion to have any personal conversation.
“Since the divorce went through,” Millstein continued, allowing himself the luxury of a sigh, “I’m not sleeping.”
“One might guess,” Getlin said, “you’d be sleeping more soundly. I mean, now with the financial arrangements settled. You had good representation?”
“It’s not about that.”
“Have you consulted a professional?”
Millstein removed his glasses. His straining, unfocused eyes looked past Getlin’s shoulder. “With my constitution, the doctor said, I shouldn’t take pills. Warm milk he recommended. So, being I’m lactose intolerant, I tried heating soy milk.” He turned aside to squint at the wall where pictures of Getlin’s stiff bored looking family hung, then gritted his teeth to abort a yawn. “It doesn’t work.”
“Maybe there’s a more deep seated problem,” Getlin suggested. “Not just sleep.”
“Just sleep,” Millstein insisted, squeezing his folded hands so hard now that blood darkened his fingertips. “I assure you. And chronic back aches.”
“Well, at M&J, as you’re well aware, we’re results driven. Our corporate culture is all about exceeding the expectations of profitable business we generate on a going forward basis, not looking back to yesterday’s accomplishments. Till now, you’ve been a model employee, Art. But your production has been slipping.”
Art? Getlin had never before called him that, the name sounded awkward and a bit hollow coming out of his mouth. He had always been simply Millstein, not only to his boss but to almost everyone else at the company. If he introduced himself to a client he said Arthur. Since childhood he had cringed if anyone called him “Art” or, worse, “Artie.” Still, he was so touched by the attempt at familiarity he couldn’t think clearly or respond other than to press his lips together and nod.
“I don’t have a magic wand anymore,” Getlin continued, “so all I’ll tell you is that in today’s hyper-competitive environment, the new leadership group won’t tolerate mediocre performance against plan. Hell, there are no sacred cows. If departmental results slip, my head’s on the block too. As Mr. Ibbetsen reminds me every Monday morning, numbers don’t lie.”
Whereas Millstein had sat with rounded shoulders, gazing at his lap, concerned he might actually tear up, now he stiffened his back and met Getlin’s steely eyes for the first time. “You say I’ve been slipping?”
“Badly. You’re not aware? That’s troubling.” Getlin slid a sheet across his desk detailing Millstein’s year over year monthly productivity. Red ink bled from every column.
“You’ve been a stalwart in my department. A mainstay. We’ve always depended on you and you’ve done us proud, posting increases for twelve straight years, even through the downturn. But things happen. Maybe you’re burnt out.”
“I’ve hit a dry spell, I’ll do better,” he vowed, holding the paper up, shaking it. “You’ll see. From today on, there’ll be a new Arthur Millstein.”
“Just give me my old one back,” Getlin said, clasping his hand, blushing. “I need him.”
Millstein strode unsteadily back to his cubicle, as in a haze. Depend on me? he thought, who doesn’t? Getlin, the kids, my mother. I work to exhaustion, fulfill my obligations, and they’re all on the dole. Even Bibi still, after what she put me through. So, where do I turn?Who do I depend on?
Wednesday dragged, tedious and draining, and that evening, after he ordered in what felt like slow motion from the plastic sheathed Watertown diner menu he’d practically memorized lately, sitting on the same squeaky stool at the end of the counter four nights a week, he worried about a breakdown. How much could one person take? Hadn’t he read that sleep deprivation could drive you over the edge? If he tossed all night, if Jeremy and Melissa remained so stung by the breakup that they refused to answer their father’s messages, except to lash out, berate and criticize from long distance, if they somehow blamed him not her, and if he was suddenly in danger of losing his livelihood, the rock that had always sustained him, he could no longer afford the indulgence of wallowing. His eyes scanned the diner: lost souls, all of them. Lifeless, bedraggled, bent over their greasy food, chewing without joy. How to make changes at fifty-four though in a life that, until recent events, had marched along reasonably according to expectation? Where to turn at this hour of aloneness and trouble, with money woes starting to pile up? Rabbi Schechtman? Hah! He could predict the sage’s advice: study, don’t dwell on it, get involved in the community, give of yourself, redemption through social action. See a shrink or therapist, sure, easy to say, but who? Every practitioner he knew was more morbidly introspective and neurotic than he was, and rather than discuss any success they might have had helping patients, it was just one complaint after another about paper work, as if he had anything to do with designing the insurance system. What’s everyone doing now, going gluten free? He’d drop dead.
Millstein leafed listlessly through the Globe, yawning, waiting for his food. He finished the plastic pint glass of Coke then raised and shook the ice remaining in it for a refill. The sports page no longer interested him, the business news was too gloomy, and forget politics. Insuring restaurants, a tricky but potentially lucrative specialization, had always been one of his prime areas of expertise at M&J. So it was that while skimming a 3 ½ star review of some new spot called Vanities in his home town of Brookline, a blur of capital letters caught his eye. And then, a flashing bolt of insight, a voice inside him echoing like a loudspeaker, induced Millstein to blurt the name on the page with some combination of vehemence, reverence and jubilation: “Hilson!”
“Excuse me, sir?” the startled counter man turned to say, but Millstein’s eyes remained glued to the paper.
So, he’s back running restaurants! Perfect. Mickey Hilson, his best friend from kindergarten, born with a gift, able to read people at a glance. Seven years it had been but so what, that was all Bibi, his ex-wife’s, doing. It came flooding back how Mickey himself had survived a devastating break up. The Divorce of the Decade, he’d joked, chronicled in all the rags, which in Hilson’s words had “absolutely crucified me, plus on top of everything I had to shell out fifty grand on the catering!” The “Golden Boy” people had taken to calling him, his reputation that of a serial entrepreneur who always knew the right buttons to press, who had a magic knack for making things happen. And hadn’t Mickey once before bailed Millstein out, following graduation in the teeth of a spirit-crushing recession? So what if it was only washing dishes at his father’s dumpy neighborhood cafe, Millstein had come to him in desperation, unable after all the sacrifices his parents had made to find a job doing anything, and scrubbing pots was honest work at least, wasn’t it? It had carried him for almost two years until the economy brightened and he landed the entry level position clerking at Acme, right after which his cousin Joyce had agreed to fix him up with Bibi, who had ironically been one of Mickey’s discards. Millstein had harbored a crush on her since high school. A crush, he thought, that’s some understatement. Obsession? It was all from afar. He pictured sprawling on the football field at Brookline High one windy autumn afternoon senior year with a dozen other kids while Bibi stood barefoot, eyes closed, long chestnut hair sweeping across her peasant blouse and up into her freckled face, playing guitar and singing Children of Darkness, her voice lilting with the kind of other worldly compassion he associated with the Angel of Mercy. By the last verse, enchanted, Millstein had vowed, This girl I’m going to marry, but he was too painfully self-conscious and shy to advance his case, or even speak to her. He was nothing if not patient though, and when time speeded up, six years later, they had their arranged date. Then, after turning Millstein down several times because of her “packed schedule,” (where he had summoned the courage to keep asking he had no idea, except from a conviction that it was right), she finally broke off with her half-hearted druggy boyfriend, they started seeing one another, and history unfolded.
Even in those early years rumors had always swirled about Hilson’s head, linking him to shady associations in the entertainment and hospitality industries, linking him, Bibi warned, to drug peddling. He’s the type, Bibi had said, definitely. Soft drugs, but still.
Unfounded! Millstein told her.
It was their first argument.
Persona non grata around this apartment, she said, wagging her finger, still nursing a hurt.
Mickey’s worked for everything, Millstein insisted. Golden Boy they call him, like he had a silver spoon, but he comes from nothing, like me. He’s just always had a talent, he could make friends with anyone.
He’s a con man, she argued, just read the papers: money laundering, gambling, cigarette smuggling, tax evasion. Are you that naïve?Don’t you think where there’s smoke there’s some fire?
Sure, Millstein said, what haven’t they accused him of? Being a pimp even. An addict. It’s ludicrous. The guy works hard, he’s a very talented promoter, a pitch man, that’s all. And a shrewd investor. He tells me he’s barely able to keep track of all the pies his fingers are in, so this is the exact type of successful person who attracts gossip and arouses envy.
I know him too, remember? Don’t defend him. Because I know what he’s made of.
Millstein’s eyes shone with the glow of decades old memory as the counter man placed his platter of turkey with steaming mashed potatoes, gravy and peas in front of him. Taking another draw on the Coke, he pictured Hilson running wild on Nantasket Beach, the one kid growing up in our crowd able to handle anything, and he wondered now, could he somehow maybe help lift this cloud over me? And how could I be such an idiot I didn’t think of contacting him before? What, still because Bibi doesn’t like him?
“Bonzo? I can’t believe it!” Hilson said, later that very night, referencing the nickname he’d bestowed on Millstein in junior high school. “It’s really you? I was sure you’d disappeared from the face of the earth, good buddy. How’d you get permission to call me? Time off for good behavior?”
In short order, Millstein painted the broad strokes of his breakup and divorce, insisting they not waste time on sordid details. “So, the girls?” he asked, eager to change the subject.
“Unbelievable,” Hilson said. “My Shari’s a big shot in marketing now for Dora The Explorer. It’s a very famous doll. And Chloe, well, she’s in high fashion design. Quite chi-chi, you know, takes after the mother, does a little modeling. A couple of grown up adult ladies, both near her in the Apple, both corporate creatures. Two blocks apart they live, it’s crazy.”
“What a blessing they’re local, you should consider yourself lucky.”
“How often do I get down to Manhattan? Every few months? Hey, at least they’re out of my hair, making their own living. And your two?”
“You ready? In Seattle and Buenos Aires. Both with struggling start-ups.”
“Oh, boy. Doing what?”
“Struggling. Who knows? Jeremy’s title sounds good on paper: Southern Hemisphere Global Manager. Meaning he manages himself. I have to still unfortunately send both of them money. To supplement.”
“Well, while you were out breaking your back sixty hours a week, that’s the way the lovely Beebs raised them: explore the world, right?Go ahead, kids, find yourself. It’ll all come together, and until it does, Pop’ll support you.”
As they traded stories Millstein felt pangs of a gnawing hunger to ask his more worldly friend some question, but what? Mickey’s a busy man, I’m fortunate to get this time with him. And what could he actually tell me? To get over it?
As it turned out, Hilson’s girlfriend, a thirty-something Pilates instructor named Destiny, was travelling on the weekend, so the two old friends arranged to meet for dinner that Saturday at Vanities, the Brookline bistro slash bar of which Mickey owned a piece, the one whose review Millstein had spied his name in earlier. “My treat,” Hilson said, and Millstein didn’t argue.
The two school chums were a comically mismatched pair sitting side by side a few steps elevated from the rest of room at the restaurant’s apex table, from which every other party could be observed, each with their signature looks: Millstein, slumping like a sack of potatoes in his kelly green and mauve patterned cardigan whose threadbare pilling yarn, unravelling at both elbows, accentuated his doughy pale-skinned corpulence, and the subtly tanned Hilson with his three day growth, all sleek vertical lines, blue eyes twinkling with cufflinks to match, sporting a cream colored monogrammed pin stripe suit over a white on white shirt open at the neck to reveal wispy clouds of chest hair, shod in spit-shined cordovan loafers and no socks to complete the ensemble.
“All right, Bonzo, give me the dirt, kid,” Hilson asked, after the waitress poured them each a second glass from a bottle of his favorite Rose, “the thrilling story of your escape from Commandant Bibi Mayerson’s clutches, and how you celebrated the happy day. I thought you were in for a lifetime sentence, Bonzo and Beeb, no chance of parole.”
“You and me both,” Millstein said, laughing, practically the first time his features had relaxed into a smile for months. “If it was up to me though, we’d still be married.”
“Of course you would, I know that. But what do you need her for, good buddy, to criticize your every move? You’ve always done a bang up job at that yourself.”
“At any rate,” Millstein mumbled, suddenly deflated, “after Jeremy graduated she started going out at least three nights a week. To entertain clients, quote unquote. Which had never happened before even once.”
Hilson whistled. “In residential real estate? Oh, boy. You always were a trusting soul.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Millstein said, perking up a bit. “I thought it was odd too, but I’d never had reason to doubt her and frankly, after twenty-four years of marriage, I couldn’t imagine anything.”
“Could she at least have invented a better lie?”
Millstein went on to explain how Bibi’s closest friend Amy had been tragically stricken with stomach cancer and how her husband Mitchell, as might be expected, had come unhinged. Their whole family had. Amy went quickly, and after the funeral Bibi, who was suffering too, began spending more and more time with Mitchell, and their teenage girls supposedly. Which, to Millstein, was fine because they genuinely seemed to need her, it was a mitzvah, and for once his wife wouldn’t be bugging him about working late, so he could pour himself into as many extra hours at the office as possible. This way, he figured, they’d be able to pay off the college loans earlier and start saving in earnest for retirement.
“Oy,” Hilson said. “And then one day you get the shock of your life. About her and the bereaved widower, the way she’s chosen to help him through his grief.”
“A call from the emergency room, no less. They would’ve gotten away scot free, even then, if not for the police report. The other driver wanted to press charges. So, my attorney___”
“Randy Sherman still?”
“Randy felt compelled to bring to my attention, about the eyewitnesses all swearing how the car was weaving, her bra being off and Mitchell’s pants around his ankles.”
Millstein looked away and his friend patted the hands he had clasped together on the table.
“The kicker being,” he resumed, clearing his throat, “unless we settled with a fat chunk of cash, this small town shyster the other party engaged promised they would rake us over the coals in court and make sure it went very public. Which I still can’t fully process.”
Millstein nodded and sighed before resuming. “She, of course, denied everything, and continues to deny it to this day. Almost insisted we go forward with a counter-suit. Can you imagine what that would have done to the kids? They still don’t know anything, thank God, they think we just had irreconcilable differences.”
“Wish I’d known about this,” Hilson said.
“It happened so fast.”
“Partner,” Hilson told him, “all I can say is, good riddance. Free at last, free at last, good God a’mighty. The deal now is, Bonzo needs to get laid.”
Millstein laughed a second time, he politely declined Hilson’s offer to call some of Destiny’s friends on his behalf that very night, but he relaxed and sat up straighter.
Throughout dinner a parade of well wishers kept coming to the table excusing themselves to interrupt and shake Hilson’s hand on account of the Globe review. He’d put two cellphones on the table top. The one he never answered but kept looking at buzzed eleven times. The other he picked up and whispered into for less than a minute each of the three times it buzzed.
“Guess you still know everyone in the world,” Millstein said, beaming in admiration. “I don’t think I know eleven people total.”
“Half these schmo’s coming around to shake my hand, how fabulous everything is, giving me their cards,” Hilson said, pointing his finger, “I don’t know them from Adam. Let me explain something: the minute some tattooed twenty-one year old zings us on Yelp or Eater, bye-bye, these people here are the first to say, Yeah, it wasn’t that good. Because they’re followers, they believe what they read. It’s never going to change, half the people don’t know their ass from their elbow.”
Millstein nodded, imagining possibilities he’d never considered, doors that his magnetic friend could swing open for him to a whole new world. Stranger things had happened. But where might they lead?
For his first time since the divorce, Millstein rose Sunday, exhilarated that no dream or other disturbance had troubled his sleep. For this he thanked Hilson. That day he re-introduced some of the decades long habits which had formerly conferred regularity and order to his life: Torah study Saturday at 10, watching sports on Sunday afternoon, drinking one Grey Goose and soda with lime before dinner, but only one, a 1.8 mile constitutional to the middle school and back every weeknight after work, no matter how late, a 4.2 mile round trip trek to the high school to start each weekend morning, lights out by 10 sharp. Everything back to normal, except, of course, bi-weekly dinners with Mitchell and Amy, and monthly book group discussion sessions with three other couples.
On Monday he stopped shuffling around the corridors at M&J, and by Tuesday co-workers were already commenting that the oddball, or Weird Artie, as some referred to him, appeared to have a little extra jaunt in his step. Once again he was able to laugh off what he referred to as the gang of self-righteous gutter-mouthed young vegetarians snickering behind his back about how he brought his disgusting meat sandwiches to work in a brown paper bag every day, how he still wore those old fashioned neck ties, and addressed them all with nods of the head and polite stilted formality. The ignorance of youth, that’s all. Jealous of my success.
With old routines restored, filled with hopes he couldn’t name, Millstein immediately resumed his former work load, arriving early, departing late and generating premiums substantially higher than he’d done for months.
Getlin summoned him the following Monday, right after weekly numbers were posted. “It’s a start,” he lectured, “but I like what I see. Keep this pace up and you can save the year.” Thankfully he’d resumed calling him Millstein again. Afterwards, in private, the supervisor patted himself on the back for knowing just how to motivate his star player sufficiently to reverse the trend and restore his full productivity.
Millstein held his head high, proud to be “back,” as he assured Getlin. Each day that passed with Hilson not returning his call or any of his messages though began to weigh heavily and compound a growing uneasiness. As puzzlement turned to disappointment, he tried telling himself that Mickey’s travelling, he’s caught up in some complicated deal, he’s down in New York seeing the girls. He’s swamped. And, what do I want from him anyway? Other than “hope” he still couldn’t define it.
By the third week after their dinner his spirits had begun to sink. Millstein soon reverted to moping around and revisiting the diner for his evening meal, staring with resignation at how colorless the bland lumpy food was compared to those spicy delicacies they’d shared at Vanities. Had their dinner been a dream? And then, late one Thursday afternoon, his head sagging, out of the blue as it were, Millstein received the text: “Got your messages, Bonzo, am working on it, kid. Keep Saturday night open.”
Working, he wondered, his heart racing, on what? What could “it” mean? And what concretely do I want, for Mickey to draw up a game plan, to take over and tell me what I should do? Or, at least make suggestions? To give me something, okay, but what?
Vanities was mobbed again when he showed up there Saturday.
“Mr. Hilson’s not here,” the towering young hostess with sparkly iridescent eye makeup and a plunging neckline said, unsmiling. She had a lisp. “Wait, who are you?” she asked, tossing her red hair and straightening some papers on the hostess stand.
“Millstein, Arthur Millstein.”
Her mouth hung open and she exhaled. “And you say he was going to meet you here when? At 7?”
“Yes,” he said, with the exuberance of a deflated beach ball.
She punched in a number. “Mario? Veronica. Somebody here says he’s supposed to meet Mickey now. Yeah. Yeah? Okay.”
She fixed her eyes at a spot on Millstein’s forehead. “You’re welcome to have a drink at the bar and see if he shows up, but we’re not expecting him. I think he was called like out of town.” Then she turned to the next party waiting. “Name?”
Millstein about faced, plodded through the front door, looked left and right, checked his phone, but then, planted under the awning, something hit him and he went back in. They were three deep now at the hostess station. It took over ten minutes to seat the new parties, and when Veronica saw that Millstein had again advanced to the front of the line she forced a smile and said “Yes?” with unconcealed impatience.
“Might Mr. Hilson have left a note for me?”
“And you are? Mill Stine you said?”
“That’s ‘steen,’” he corrected her. “Wait, could it be under Bonzo?”
“Oh,” she said, touching her lips, “sorry. Why didn’t you say so?” She handed him an envelope.
The note read, “10:30 tonight. Table 1 at the Starlight, Bonzo. Don’t be a schlump, wear something cool.”
10:30? Millstein found a coffee shop still open and slurped a double iced espresso, took one to go, then headed home, worried, jittery.
He looked up this Starlight to check their dress code, decided to find something dark he could wear later, he made a sandwich but couldn’t eat, showered again, then leaned forward towards his bathroom mirror, and snipped some whitish hairs sprouting from his nostrils. Still naked, he inhaled, trying in vain to shrink his thick belly fat, he slapped cologne on his cheeks and neck and then, in his haste to pick up the ringing phone, thinking it might be Hilson, stubbed his toe.
“What happened?” his mother asked when she heard him groaning in pain. “Are you okay?”
“What? I’m fine, I know, Ma,” he said, “I know. I’m sorry. Things have been crazy.”
“Sorry nothing,” she said, “you’re a grown man, you have your life, you’re busy, you work long hours, I appreciate everything you do to augment the Social Security, and I know you’re not on Easy Street lately. So, I don’t like to bother you, but is it unreasonable to expect a call at our regularly appointed time? Our six-thirty check in? I was worried, that’s all. I’m eighty-three years old, I can barely see to dial, Sunny.”
That was the only name she ever called him, because he was such a sweet baby she said, he was like the sunshine that had always been missing in her life.
“Ma, I can’t talk now, I’ve got something going on.”
“So, don’t talk,” she said. “Go ahead, hang up on me.”
“Tell me first how you are, Sunny, don’t shut out a mother who loves you. It hurts my heart to see you this unhappy. You remember after your father’s breakdown after Sheila ran off to California? You had to be a man before you were ready and to this day I’m guilty for that.” She started weeping, her breath short.
The second the words came out of his mouth Millstein realized his mistake, but she was getting too nervous, and as usual it made him want to distract her by blurting the first news that popped into his head. “So, guess who I had dinner with? My old friend Michael Hilson.”
His mother gasped. “What friend? Patsy, you mean. You forgot?”
“Mom, please, that’s ancient history and I’ve told you: he paid me back many times over.” But having said it, doubt crept in: did he?
“All through school, you’re the one who got up five o’clock schlepping papers around the neighborhood, you did two routes, you helped us out contributing when Daddy had his troubles.” She paused but when Millstein tried to interrupt she spoke loudly over him, her voice vibrating. “You saved pennies to buy a new bike, and then you lent this, this nothing____”
“He paid me back, Mom!” Millstein shouted. “What have you always had against him?”
“What? Because there’s nothing to him. No character. The father too. Louie Hilsenrath, before he went and had it shortened. Him you never knew? A phony baloney from the word go, a wheeler dealer, always mixed up in some racket. The poor mother was a saint, what she had to put up with. Well, the apple don’t fall far from the tree.”
“Phony? Really?” Millstein said, mildly now. “You understand, Ma, that Mickey was valedictorian of that fancy prep school they sent him to on the athletic scholarship, that he was All-State in tennis and swimming? Does that sound like a person of character who works hard and sacrifices, or a phony?”
“A valedictorian!” she said, laughing. “You’ll believe anything still, won’t you? It doesn’t occur to you, Sunny, you’re not the type to make white lies up even. So, he says he’s doing well, I assume.”
“He’s got his finger in a million businesses, he makes some living.”
“All right, let him live and be well, so maybe you should learn something, how to push yourself forward more. At the company. So,” she paused, and he knew what was coming, part as it was of every conversation, “what do you hear, if at all, from Bibi?”
“It’s over, Mom. Forget it, please. We’re divorced. The only thing I hear, she wants even more money, on top of the alimony, she can’t keep up with the house payments. But she won’t sell on the chance in a million Jeremy or Melissa decide to ever move back.”
“More money she wants? She’s got a job, let her get off her rear and sell some fercockta houses. So, she still denies everything? She won’t come clean?”
“Who knows? Maybe at the holidays.”
The Starlight: Saturday Night Fever revisited, Millstein thought, dark, revolving crystalline pillars, pulsing primal drum rhythms, every surface shimmery and bathed in crimson light. From a distance it looked to be all people in their fifties, some maybe older, with a lot more women, the men slithering around, ladies dancing together, everyone glittery, made up to the gills.
Millstein had arrived a bit early and immediately spied Hilson in his signature suit, loafers and all. He slipped behind a pillar and watched Mickey hunting the room, his head bobbing, sniffing for just the right place to camp and exude his charms, like a dog after it rains, unsure of which among all the tempting smells was best. Millstein observed with curiosity, an anthropologist studying the habits of a primitive chieftain. Hilson had always known how to navigate. He stopped, flashed his teeth, exchanged pleasantries and moved on, his upper body undulating. Like a knife through butter, Millstein thought. He could see the longing and hurt in the eyes of some of the women Mickey was able to hypnotize in just seconds. He couldn’t miss how drawn to his scent they appeared to be, to the longish hair that he remembered the girls at the junior high parties had vied with one another to mess up.
“So, what do you think?” Mickey asked when they met at Table 1.
“Pretty loud in here. It’s a time warp.”
“Yeah,” Hilson said, leaning in to speak in his ear, “so what’s next, kiddo? Now that you’re free? Nothing’s holding you back, you can go any direction. So, what do you want out of life?”
“That,” Millstein confided, “is a big question. I don’t know. Not as free as you think. I’ve got obligations.”
Hilson ordered a Basil Hayden Manhattan, Millstein his Grey Goose.
“Okay, start with some basics: work less hours and make more money, no? The very idea, not being chained to your job, to your wife anymore, scary thoughts, am I right?”
“You have to leverage somehow, put whatever capital you have to work for you. We’ll figure it out. Come on, let’s meet some girls.”
Millstein stood off to the side while Hilson slid in between a couple of women who’d been tearing the floor up together. They instantly and wordlessly formed a threesome, both women reacting to his upper body moves as though the whole routine had been rehearsed. When the song ended he took each by the hand and motioned for Millstein to return to the table.
“Bonzo,” he said, “meet Bambi and Janine. This is my good buddy. My goombah.”
Bambi, the smiling one with the round open face, olive complexion and dark pixie haircut slid in next to Millstein. She was wearing a black lace choker with a stone on it that sparkled.
“Nice to meet you, Bonzo. You a dancer?”
“Nice to meet you too.” He looked into her eyes, thickly streaked with eyeliner and a little saggy. “I, no I don’t. Know how to dance. But you’re very good.”
“That’s what I do for a living. I’m lucky, it’s fun. Want me to show you some steps?”
He declined. They ordered drinks, even had a few laughs, and she was so unexpectedly warm and encouraging that before the two women rose to leave an hour later, maybe it was the unaccustomed second drink, but he stunned himself by asking for her number.
She wrote it on a cocktail napkin and gave him a hug. Maybe just being around Mickey’s rubbing off on me, he thought.
“Way to go, buddy,” Hilson said, high fiving him. “You did better than me. A professional dancer, no less. You know, they got the best bods of anyone. So, you having a good time?”
“Oh, yeah. This Bambi, there’s something about her I like.”
“Of course there is,” he said, patting his friend’s cheek twice. “What am I going to do with you, buddy? You need to keep active and take some chances in life. Don’t mope around, don’t listen to those doubting voices in your head. You can do it, kid. You’re gonna.”
Millstein sped up on his walk to the high school Sunday morning, pounding his fist, thinking Hilson is right, damn it! Don’t let the past limit you. He called Bambi and left a message inviting her to dinner next Saturday at Vanities, he said he hoped she was free, and that he would call her back. The checks he wrote to the bank for the college loans, to his mother, both his children, and to Bibi stung a little less that afternoon, but the math threw him: more funds going out on a monthly basis maintaining two residences since the divorce than were coming in. They’re bleeding me dry, he thought.
He texted Hilson about wanting to pursue the “less hours working, more money” idea and Mickey got back to him within minutes: Got this mega-deal cooking, could cut you in on a piece, but too risky, not right for you, we need a sure thing, keep the faith, it’ll come along.This thrilled and terrified Millstein in ways he couldn’t express and chose not to examine too deeply. His response: Thanks.
When they met for coffee Wednesday morning Millstein was talking with his hands.
“That Bambi, from the Starlight? We’re going to Vanities. Saturday night.”
“Some operator you are,” Mickey said. “What time? I’ll make sure they take care of you.”
“Yeah? Six-thirty. So, I keep thinking about what you said. And, wondering how it applies to me. But mostly, how you yourself make a living?”
“Me?” He laughed. “Same as always: a little of this, a little of that. I connect people to things and things to people, I own a schtickel here, a bisselleh there, all these interests add up and somehow I do okay.”
“But what businesses?”
“So many it’s not even funny. I don’t name names.” He laughed. “Let’s see, a bakery, a deli, three other restaurants, a PR company, a body shop, jewelry store, two packies, a dry cleaners, a VC investment firm, a parking lot, that one’s the best, and a combination print shop and stationery store. A tiny sliver of each, so I keep diversified. Ever hear of a holding company? That’s me. What’d I leave out?” He hit his forehead. “Oh, my two charitable foundations I started. My accountant Nat’s the only one getting rich though, I assure you.”
“Not the lawyer?”
“It’s all handshake deals, see? My name shouldn’t appear in public. I’ve got to stay in the background, off the official boards, because, with my reputation, well, you know.”
“Two felony arrests forever ago, the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. Both charges got dropped but to the average schmuck, it looks bad, see? Dirty. You understand? The news is just another product they’re pushing. So be it, so I’m the silent partner in all these ventures. I have no idea how they linked me to Vanities, maybe the landlord blabbed, but it is what it is. People got nothing to do, they love throwing rocks. That’s it, in a nutshell. That’s why I keep my private life private.”
So it had always been, Millstein thought hurrying back to his car, and probably always would be. Small-minded people, the sin of gossip. There’s no shortage of questions, but a man this busy, that he would pay attention to me and my problems, that he’s willing to help out of friendship, for this I have only gratitude.
“If she’s going to like you?” Millstein’s mother asked during their next conversation. “You’re fifty-four, you’re a grown man, you make a nice living. You’re not a drinker, you don’t gamble. The shoe should be on the other foot.”
“She’s a very attractive woman probably in her thirties, ma. A dancer. I’m pudgy. And not exactly a fashion plate.”
“Ha! A dancer is like a gypsy. Don’t push yourself into nothing. Play your cards close to the vest. And the goniff?
“Don’t say that, Ma. It’s not nice.”
“Pardon me, I mean, the valedictorian. Don’t get involved, Sunny. Play with matches, you get burned.”
Bambi was sitting laughing at the bar, two stout jacketless men standing, chatting her up, one of whom had his hand on her shoulder. When Millstein arrived he cleared his throat. She turned and smiled.
“Hey, what’cha doing? What’s up, Bonzo?”
He was tongue tied.
“Let me introduce you to my two new friends, Larry and Pat. This is Bonzo, my dinner date.”
He smiled and nodded. Neither Larry nor Pat did.
“You want a drink first?” she asked. “Or go right to the table?”
He felt uncomfortable, didn’t know what to say, missed Bibi. He pointed to the dining room.
“Those two look like gangsters,” he said once they were seated.
“No,” she said, “just wannabe’s.”
Bambi, carried the conversation and Millstein felt like a complete failure, only able to give one and two word answers. He couldn’t unwind. Then she asked him an ice-breaker: to reveal something about himself that wouldn’t necessarily meet the eye.
“I’m recently divorced.”
“That’s obvious,” she said, laughing. “What else?”
“Hard to believe, but I never won the Mr. Popularity award in high school.”
So?” she said. “There are more important things.”
“I suppose. And, what about you? Tell me something I wouldn’t know.”
She hunched her shoulders, looked to see if anyone she knew was sitting nearby and said, “I have a twelve year old son that I absolutely adore. And I would describe myself as practically a lesbian.”
“Well,” Millstein said, smiling for the first time, “I like a challenge.”
After this they spoke freely and openly about their lives.
“Want to know what I think would help make a difference?” she asked him. “I’m kind of intuitive this way.”
“I’m all ears,” he said, leaning forward.
“Hydration,” she said, looking into his eyes. “I don’t think you drink enough water. You know, Mr. Hilson once told me_____”
“Wait,” Millstein asked, “you know him? From before that night at the Starlight.”
“Yes. Well, I mean no. Everybody knows him. And nobody really does.”
There was something he really liked about Bambi, her perkiness, her forthrightness, but he drove home wracked with doubt. A gulf separated them that he could scarcely imagine bridging. It made him shiver though, the thought that he was alone and that he would be. Always. But how could I take Bibi back? It’s incomprehensible. After everything she did. He hit the steering wheel. “Never!” he shouted. Then he pictured Mitchell: an even bigger schlump than I am! And he sunk into a deep depression. If I take her back, if I let this pass, it negates everything I’ve ever stood for and believed, it’s as though my whole life’s meaningless.
That night the dream about the phone call recurred with a vengeance for the first time in weeks. He lay in bed fast-forwarding through the hours, days, months, and years he’d spent evaluating other people’s insurance-worthiness, how he forced himself to, through eye strain and back aches, because he thought it was building a future for the four of them. Ha! Whatever salary he made it was never enough and then paying two tuitions simultaneously saddled him with huge notes on top of it. Hand to mouth, other than the equity built up in the house. And now? Shattered. Blown to smithereens. The future stretched out drab and monotonous, like a jail sentence.
At work Monday, after another agitated night, he found himself barely able to sit still. His eyes wandered off the computer screen, he took frequent walks around the office, inventing reasons to visit other departments. Go, get up, get a drink of water like she said, every thirty minutes, get up and pee.
Getlin passed him in the hall and stared. “See me later,” he said.
The next few weeks were disastrous. His attire, always fodder for ridicule among his co-workers (“Check out Burger Butt today; Marshall’s or K-Mart?” they would debate), grew more slovenly than usual, beyond mockery, pity-inducing, with wrinkly shirts that were buttoned in the wrong holes, missing collar stays, or underarms soiled yellow with perspiration, with obvious smeary stains on his ties. To economize Millstein had stopped visiting the dry cleaners. He was in no mood to call Bambi. He reached out to Hilson but had yet to hear back.
What brought him back around was Mickey returning his call. “You ready?” he asked. “I’m working on a bunch of projects, but I got something that looks pretty good. Everybody thinks it’s a longshot, but I happen to know from the inside it’s a sure thing, if you know what I mean. Quick turnover, not something you’ll have to wait to pop. Six weeks, I’m figuring eight to ten times your investment minimum.”
“Holy smokes! What’s the business?”
“Bonzo, you know I can’t talk about that. You know what risk capital is? Something you don’t want to lose, but you can afford to lose, that won’t make a difference. Is this something you’re in a position to do? The odds here are you win big, but there are no guarantees in life.”
Millstein thought about some of the risky policies he’d written based on instinct and experience that had returned huge premiums for M&J over the years. In a subject you know cold, he reasoned, like I know insurance, like Mickey knows people, your odds increase. You can smell it. And, this way, drop by drop I’m going broke. Like he says, I’ve got to start leveraging.
“I’m in,” Millstein said. “What are the details?”
“You sound good, Ma,” Millstein said on their call the next night. It was a sixth sense they both had: to tell how the other was feeling based solely on their voice answering the phone.
“Yes, I’m doing well, sweetheart, but now I’m a little bit nervous. There’s something I detect. An uncertainty?”
“Aw, come on,” he said, trying to disguise whatever it was, “don’t give me that.”
“I’m your mother, and something in your voice has me worried.”
“Ma, I’m doing fine.”
Then, her intuition amazed him, she started ranting about Hilson, how phony he struck her even as a young boy, so overly polite, and what a no good father he came from, always mixed up in something, and how Millstein went through this phase where he tried to do everything Hilson did and it got him in trouble, and how he thinks he knows people, but he’s easily taken in.
Millstein didn’t want to argue that all the boys wanted to be like Mickey, so he listened and got off the phone as soon as possible. Then he shot Hilson a text.
“Great timing,” Hilson said over the phone, “because I’m travelling starting tomorrow and this one I’ve got to put together asap. It’s short money. You’ve got a grand?”
“I’ll get it.”
“I got this huge deal coming up I wish I could cut you in on, a sure thing, should pay twenty times, but the minimum ticket is fifty kay. Could be the chance of a lifetime, but it might take up to a few years to pay out. Is there any way, Bonz?”
“Wow. I don’t think so.”
“You’re not liquid, are you? Anything you could cash in? I mean, if you felt comfortable doing it.”
“Wait, wait, I’ve got this whole life policy!” Millstein said. “And cash value’s up over fifty now.”
“Perfect! What do you need insurance for any more? Think it over.”
Millstein wrote out the check for a thousand and when he drove it over to Vanities in an envelope for Mickey he was so nervous his hand shook. A million dollars? Me? Then he waited.
Over the next few months he kept imagining what he could do with the eight or so thousand, how it would give him a cushion, get him over the hump. But what if it wasn’t eight? Six would be good too. He took Bambi to dinner a few times, but there was nothing romantic between them. To be with her in public perked him up, but he couldn’t imagine what she could see in him. It was Bibi he still thought of, how even now she urged him to eat more healthy and lose some weight.
She was a good woman, she always had been, and Millstein had once loved her with all his heart. A nervous real estate agent who generally tried to talk clients out of buying, rather than bear the guilt of seeing them in a house they might regret. A warm maternal presence. Especially with first time home buyers.
If they don’t like the house, her manager Don lectured her time and again, the market will forgive them. This couple needs to get into the housing market, Bibi, to start building equity. You’ll be doing them a favor.
Why then? How could she have? Temporary insanity? Is there such a thing? Is it even possible that maybe she didn’t? But how?
For the first time since the divorce loneliness clawed at his insides so deeply he called her. All the conversation amounted to though was short, abrupt, staccato blasts, shot back and forth with the same defensiveness that the former couple exhibited on occasions when she’d called him. Mitchell came up and she asked if Millstein was still so jealous. It touched a nerve
“How could I be jealous? It’s not even him! You took over his life, you tried to re-do him, you dragged him to Yoga, updated his glasses, you worked on his posture, put him on a diet, and you know what? He’s still a bigger schlump than I am.”
“All right,” she said, laughing, “it’s close but you’re right.”
“I don’t get it,” Millstein said. “I’m no Maserati, but you traded me in for a jalopy even more broken down than I am.”
“I didn’t,” she said, suddenly screaming. “Why can’t you believe me? You drove me away. You cast me out.”
“Oh, because I work so hard to provide for all of us? So I couldn’t give you the attention you deserve, and he could?”
“No! Because you wouldn’t believe me, you wouldn’t hear my explanation.”
“You take me for an idiot? You led me around for months, I had my doubts, and when it finally came out I had to stand up.”
“I’m not a liar,” she said, breaking down, crying, and then she hung up.
Doubt undermined reason. She wasn’t a liar, he knew that. But how could there be an explanation? Lucky for me, he thought, they caught her dead to rights, or it would still be going on under my nose to this day.
Hilson was nowhere to be found. He’s a busy man, Millstein said, hurt, holding off for ten weeks before reaching out again. He tried every week at least once after that until he stopped. Were Bibi and his mother right? He struggled to pay his bills, his checking account balance dwindling, he tried cutting back more on expenditures. He kept sending money to the children and all he got from them on his birthday, which he spent watching television, holding hands with his mother, were two terse and distant notes wishing him well. As if they’d conspired. He was so tired he fell asleep in the chair.
The next day he called in sick. He stayed in bed, at his lowest point ever. The light hurt his eyes, each breath was labored. All he ate was a bowl of canned soup. And then, as the sun disappeared, this text came: “We eloped to Europe, me and Destiny. Extended honeymoon over next week. Meet me at Vanities Wed at 5.”
They showed Millstein to Mickey’s table and he waited. He wouldn’t order anything though. He just kept thinking about what a fool he was, how he’d squandered a precious thousand dollars that he couldn’t afford to, how his finances were collapsing. He wondered what lie Mickey would tell him. How could he live with himself? Five turned to six, and then twenty minutes later Hilson showed up, looking haggard, dressed in jeans ripped at one knee and an untucked plaid shirt, carrying a grease-stained brown paper bag.
“Forgive me,” he said to Millstein, sliding in next to him. “I haven’t been well. Don’t ask. Must be the food over there.”
Millstein glared at him, speechless. What a costume!
“I think I made a mistake,” he said, his gaunt eyes looking off to the side, averting Millstein.
“Getting married again.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, his voice husky and hoarse, the words sounding slurred. “Everyone’s got their weaknesses. With me its blondes with long legs and this belief I can beat any point spread. Both of which always come back to bite me.”
He went on to deflect Millstein’s open mouthed stare, to complain about Destiny’s extravagant spending, how the pre-nup that he signed out of blind love, under what he called her spell, despite all his lawyer’s warnings, turned out to indeed be a disaster, how it had been a terrible idea to traipse around Europe for almost four months at her insistence and that coming back now after being away virtually incommunicado, everything seemed to be blowing up around him.
Millstein heard but he didn’t, all he could feel was a raw gaping wound in his gut that the lost thousand made. He’d never seen Hilson this disheveled before, but he didn’t care, he knew it was all an act.
Then Mickey paused from his litany of woes. “About your money,” he said, sniffing, “you’re going to hate me.”
I already do, Millstein thought, I could kill you! His cheeks began flaming, but he was too scared to speak.
“Sometimes things don’t work out the way you hope they would.” Hilson looked teary. “I’m sorry, Bonzo, I really am.” He reached over and placed the brown paper bag that he’d carried on the way in onto Millstein’s lap. The printing on it said Bernie’s Doughnuts.
“The deal almost hit. But it turned out a dud.”
Millstein stared at him. A birthday present, a consolation prize, a bag of doughnuts?
“Do me a favor, don’t open that here, please. Wait till you get home. Have dinner on me first if you want. Got to run.” Then he patted Millstein’s arm and left.
Millstein sat paralyzed. What kind of human being does this? He closed his eyes.
The waiter asked what he wanted.
He got up to leave, as if in a trance, then before reaching the door he came back and took the bag of doughnuts, as a reminder.
“It never happened,” Bibi said, when they met face to face for the first time since the divorce the following day at the house they once shared.
“On my mother and father. The three eyewitnesses lied. They lived right around the corner from where the accident happened, they were friends of the guy driving. He called them up, they raced to the scene, the drunk kid who skidded into us switched seats with the so called designated driver, then we heard them concoct the whole story before the cops arrived. They took down everything these quote unquote neutral eyewitnesses who supposedly just happened to be hanging out on the street swore they saw. And that’s all that happened.”
“And the bra?”
“Completely made up. To try and embarrass us, to get a settlement. Like we’d really be coasting down Main Street in Medfield having some kind of kinky sex. They said it was white, but it was gray, and their lawyer laughed, he said, Of course, in the dark, who could tell? The kid was driving a brand new fire engine red Camaro, they totalled it, he probably couldn’t afford the repairs so they tried to pin it on us. As I said, by the time the cop showed up everything was in place.”
“All right, what were you doing in Medfield at 10 pm?”
“Taking a drive. Trying to distract Mitchell and talk him out of committing suicide.”
They both started crying.
“I can’t,” Millstein said. “I’m all upset. I need some time.”
Later he called Hilson who answered his phone right away sounding more hoarse than day before.
“What I do,” Mickey explained, his voice croaking, “is I give people hope, people who have none. That’s what drives me. I create businesses, I make things happen and get people jobs.”
“You always get back on your feet,” Millstein said, his voice unsteady, “never mind. Thanks for that bag. Thirty-four hundred, it’s nothing to sneeze at.”
AN Block teaches at Boston University and is Contributing Editor at the Improper Bostonian. He has an MA in History and is a Master of Wine. His most recent stories have appeared in Buffalo Almanack (recipient of its Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence), Umbrella Factory Magazine (a Pushcart Prize nominee), The Maine Review, Constellations, Contrary, Per Contra, Torrid Literature, Menda City Review, Amarillo Bay, Literally Stories, Drunk Monkeys, New Pop Lit, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Citron, DenimSkin, Burningwood Literary Journal, Crack The Spine, The Bicycle Review, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Flash Frontier, Falling Star, Blue Bonnet Review,The Binnacle and several others.