Since Eve’s death Clint was The Couples’ Scourge.
He’d have dodged the rap gladly, but he couldn’t cook. Eve had been equally kitchen-innocent, and they’d dined out all the time, squandering pairs of empty chairs at four-seat tables for more than forty years.
Ah, but how crucial that third seat could be. He was about to slip his spoon into a bowl of minestrone when a young couple stopped at the maitre d’s lectern, and the familiar pantomime unfolded: The goateed boy nodded to propose the interior, the couple demurred; he shrugged and swept his arm across the awninged area; they cast Clint a scornful gaze.
Couples occupied two of four seats at half the other tables, but the jowly old man seated alone was as conspicuous as Judas at The Last Supper.
So he signaled the maitre d’. And usually he welcomed the company, even when the strangers, generally younger — generally everyone was younger — no more than nodded at him. Clint watched the maitre d’ explain to the couple, who glanced and without consultation declined. A foursome had gathered behind them, and as the maitre d’ listed them, a middle-aged couple arrived.
This pair considered their watches, Clint, the Mexican restaurant across the street, then assented.
They were dressed smart-casually. He wore an auburn linen jacket with a collarless cream shirt, and she a peach print sundress, with a bulky blue scarf wound around her throat. Clasping his napkin, Clint half-stood.
“Thank you, we appreciate it,” the man said in a lean baritone, as he seated his wife. “We’re in a bit of a hurry.” And they retreated behind the outsized, leather-bound menus.
The low sun saffron-fringed the meters and windshields on 16th Street and for a moment enough of it spilled under the awning to outline the couple. Clint figured them about twenty years younger, closer in age to his kids. Chris if he worked with the man would address him by first name. But if the man had started at State, say twenty years ago, he would have called Clint “Mr. Ferguson.”
Clint leaned back and smiled absently when he finished his soup. He always waited for the strangers to decide they wanted to chat. This couple seemed content to ignore him. But when Clint reached into his jacket, the woman spoke.
“At least no one’s smoking,” she told her husband.
Her parched whisper halted Clint more than the remark. For a second he figured she had laryngitis, but the scarf cued him. Clint withdrew his hand and cleared his throat.
“Yes, that’s good,” the husband responded, tapping the first two fingers of his right hand on the tablecloth.
It was like warning a mug you have him covered when he goes for his gun. Was it that urgent? She might have waited, at least, until he pulled the pack from his coat — he always asked. Still, offering the chance to avoid offense meant she had come of age when people skirted rather than courted contretemps. Once, a younger woman at a similar table had snarled, “we’re not going to smoke, and neither are you.”
The waiter slipped around from the left and presented a plate of prosciutto slices and kiwi wedges, radially arranged, and spun the plate into the muslin tablecloth. Both the man and woman gazed blankly then lifted their menus again. They’d expected an upscale Italian Place, not a wannabe Tuscan trattoria.
Clint had been out of Columbia but a year and a half, Eve still had a year’s work on her dissertation when the transfer he’d requested without telling her came through and they left Chevy Chase for the Florence consulate. They lumbered over the hills in a Fiat box, munched figs and olives, griped about Goldwater over cheap Chianti. It was, in its way, the time of their lives, those two years, before Chris and Carolyn, before electricity and plumbing and tourism took the Tuscan hill towns. (They said they would go back but it wouldn’t have been the same.) So when Clint saw the word “Trattoria” on the wall, replacing whatever, Tapas or Thai, his spirits rose. He ate at the place at least once a week, sometimes twice. He’d been through a dozen waiters, easily. The maitres d’ never deigned to recognize him, and Clint barely tolerated their mannered sourness. But every plate so far had been superb, the prosciutto-and-kiwi included.
If only he could top it off with a butt.
To redeem himself, Clint suggested, “You might try the caprese, for starters.”
“Oh really,” said the man, enacting tact. “We’ve never eaten here. Obviously.”
Did he speak for his wife regularly, Clint wondered, and had he done so… before?
Clint started smoking in Korea because Charlie Felski never took his last pack. Once a week, Clint’s barber father made the ambit of Arbor Street — druggist, grocer, hardware store and post office — and sent off a package of practicalities, boxers and blades, always with a half-dozen packs of Camels. Finally, Clint wrote to remind him that he did not smoke, and his father with the next box wrote that he’d read cigarettes were “like legal tender over there.” But Clint had been giving them to Felski, who took to shadowing him at mail call, broadly absorbing the company’s chuckles. He called Clint “Smokes,” even got some of the guys doing it. Every five years, Fred Hriniak phoned about the division reunion and dutifully called him “Smokes,” and Clint, usually pinching a Silk Cut, rued his sole nickname.
Joining the Marines, Clint figured, was the best and worst thing he’d done for himself. It transformed him, as he’d hoped, from the wispy, bookish boy who didn’t have the money for college into a man capable of focus and devotion, armed with the G.I. Bill. But the Corps also had introduced him to panic and it had set at his feet Felski’s unclaimed parcel.
He shuffled in slush outside the tent, previously part of a motor pool, that constituted what was left of battalion HQ, waiting for a barely older second lieutenant to document Clint’s existence in the freshly eviscerated Dog Company, watching grunts, trucks and Jeeps stream, converge and flee, in what his lately romantic mind recognized as the essential mechanics of retreat: staple of the centuries, the pained and slack faces of warriors running away. And Clint weighed joining that southward stream before the bar got some ace idea like returning him to hell. He settled against a four-foot stack of wood-boxed motor oil and felt the pack in his jacket pocket, remembered for the first time that he’d held it back for a joke, to toss to a pocket-patting Felski. Fixed on the preposterous camel and oasis, he wondered what poor dumb dead Felski got from the habit, wanted abruptly to be Felski a moment, to honor him. Felski had made him feel a fellow grunt, a Marine at last. The past six hours had trumped that: Machine-gunning a squad of Chinese boys as they dashed from the cordite-heavy fog, bayoneting one, that shuddering bone crunch, crushing another’s head on a rock, stumbling over bodies and plunging a hand into lukewarm entrails, and Felski… curled, crying, bleeding, wheezing… Clint started to blubber as he got the cigarette in his lips and as he bent over to suck the first puff, the smoke furled into his eyes and made him tear, so he had to turn away and face the tent. He knew he was in for a shock so he took it in thinly, even blew out half the puff before inhaling it. But of course it made him cough and splutter more and he felt the worse for Felski, as he made a shambles of the chump’s only tribute. So he straightened up and took another, short drag and whipped it in, like he’d seen Felski do so often, that little banner of smoke that snaps back. And as the smoke singed his lungs, he knew he would cough again, and he knew he would love this.
The whole Fifties happened in a haze, the cindery funk of cigarettes. It startled Clint to look back on that society besotted with nicotine. He missed the common gestures — popped packs and tapped ends. Smoking paced life, especially speech; people would puff for pause, exhale a punchline or grim news. They leaned over restaurant tables to tip dense sections of ochery fiber into match flames lifted by lip-clenching, wincing strangers or, hats aslant on wintry streets, they huddled in broad-lapelled overcoats and took or gave smokes and lights, their gloved fingers cupping enameled lighters.
Eve never smoked, but she rarely beefed about Clint’s habit — beyond ostentatiously leaning away, or sometimes walking away, when he lit up. Eventually, she tucked her annoyance into a more general resentment, having traded her doctorate for Tuscan revels too-soon supplanted by diapers and Halloween costumes. A number of rooms in their Alexandria home were preserved against smoke — her room, the kitchen, all bathrooms — but in the early years of their marriage, Eve was like most non-smokers, an innocent minority that bemusedly endured its fire-inhaling fellows.
Near their first anniversary, and the end of his third semester at Columbia, an old-maid friend of his parents died and left Clint $500. They decided to live it up, go crazy. They took in “West Side Story,” dined late at Mama Leone’s then cabbed back uptown to Sardi’s.
Waiting for a booth, they tried not to gawk, and Clint discreetly pointed out celebrities in the glossies lining the room. As they settled into the padded booth, Eve gouged his calf with her pump and canted her head to indicate the corner booth behind her, which sat six beset with laughter and coughs. At the edge, one satin-seamed leg in the aisle, wavered William Holden. Jacketless, bow tie unslung and brilliant hair loose in onyx bristles, Holden propped his elbow on the table’s edge and leaned his lips into a cigarette.
“I can’t believe it,” Eve exulted, jack-spined as a recruit on parade drill.
Clint couldn’t either. Taking care to pan the room, he swept his gaze over Holden, pictured him glaring up at Alec Guinness and expiring with a groan: “You…”
“This is so exciting,” said Eve, jazzed and just a little loopy. That’s another thing people were in the Fifties — looped, juiced, lit up, toasted, tight, numberless sheets to ceaseless winds — and Clint in later years wondered if alcohol compensated for the nicotine, or vice versa.
Clint ordered Manhattans, up, and while they recalled scenes from “Bridge on the River Kwai,” he studied Eve, alabaster in her sleeveless black Dior knockoff. The auburn curls framing her forehead echoed the loops of smoke from his Camel. Clint anticipated a grand sack-romp.
Suddenly Holden rose, and in jolly outrage flung his napkin onto the seat. This won a gust of laughter. He strode over to Clint and Eve’s table and with sleepy suavity intoned, “Pardon me, my friends seem not to want my company any more.”
Neither of them spoke, and Holden began to swivel toward Eve, then straightened, looked at Clint and perched tentatively next to him. Clint read from his bright expression that, yes, he was toying with them, the star and the sweet young couple, but he would not abuse them.
“How are you folks tonight?” he asked. “Pardon me as I escape my friends awhile. You don’t mind me horning in like this?”
Of course they did not, and Holden lifted himself entirely onto the bench, next to Clint. “William Holden, by the way.”
Clint shook his hand fervidly and introduced Eve and himself. Eve was agog, still uncollected from her astonishment, and Clint was a guy whose wife had drawn a movie star’s eye.
“And what brings you folks to this den of iniquity?” Holden said, precisely enunciating in spite of the sails he’d set to the gale.
Clint told him about “West Side Story” and Holden soggily proclaimed, “Ah yes, the future of the American Musical Thee-a-tuh!”
Clint laughed generously. He told Holden that they’d just been talking about “Bridge on the River Kwai,” that he had sniffed an epic-glory tale but found instead a dim judgment on codes of honor. He did not mention that he approved this judgment because he disdained the type of patriotism the times prescribed. Holden at first took the praise hang-headedly, but he brushed it off as Clint started to recall that climactic scene with Guinness. “Yeah, yeah, thanks. Really. So, where you folks from?”
Eve told him and Holden slid forward to pull from his pants pocket a fluted gold cigarette case, which he flipped open and proffered. To Clint’s astonishment, Eve wiggled one of the smokes from its cinch, revered it a moment, then fit it between her lips. Clint took one, too, and a warm, manurey odor swept the booth. These were imported, dark and strong-looking; years later, Clint would peg them as Gauloises. Holden fit one in his lips then flicked alight a gold-plated Zippo and held it for Eve, who reddened.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, centering the cigarette on the case. “I really don’t smoke.” A sable fleck of tobacco clung to the garnet gloss on her top lip.
Holden lit Clint’s, then picked up Eve’s rejected cigarette and said, “Well, we can’t let this go to waste.” And he set it snugly next to the other one in his lips, lit both at once.
Fleetingly reliving his first butt, Clint took a short puff and squinted away a tear, hated how often that happened after thousands of cigarettes. But he successfully resisted the comic seizure he assumed Holden expected. Then Holden blew out a cloud of smoke and coughed until he gagged. Clint timidly patted his clammy shirt-back.
“Well,” Holden managed between gasps, “well.” He straightened, stubbed out the two smokes. “I guess we see that was a mistake.” And he winked as he slipped away. “You folks have a nice night.”
Clint was not much surprised when they selected a house Merlot by the glass and ordered Spaghetti Bolognese, which he figured was on the menu specifically for The Unsuspecting. He wished he’d ordered a bottle of Riserva; it wasn’t the expense that bothered him as much as the waste.
While they waited, they leaned toward each other and spoke quietly, his soft sough damping her rasp. Clint wondered if the man whispered in sympathy with her or to exclude him. He wanted to chat with them only to distance the nicotine craving.
Clint had decided to skip the second plate. He awaited tenderloin and arugula. Weighing lukewarm meat and wilted leaves against that gratifying alveolar surge, he excused himself.
Despite the posters of misty vineyards and cobbled lanes, illusions of Tuscany dissolved at the bar. Here clotted young men in three-button suit coats and young women in slit skirts, drinking wines and beers with great garrulity, most smoking, while the Orioles labored silently at either end. Clint stood under a television, leaning provisionally as if to drink, and lit a Silk Cut. He counted on going unnoticed. In a city foaming with cultures, an old man is the only invisible minority, he sulked with satisfaction.
Clint had never smoked at Foggy Bottom, even when everyone did, and so when the days of smoker banishment arrived not long before he retired, he spurned the knots around the planters outside. If anything, he felt a little disdainful, and proud of himself. Although, of course, Clint was out of the building a lot, on errands or coffee runs or luncheon appointments and never failed to light up, and he smoked unhesitatingly at home, at least where Eve tolerated it.
It wasn’t until she was laid out that he learned you could no longer smoke in a funeral home. And so Chris found him, hunched in his raincoat against the wall, under the barrel-hoop awning of Farber Mortuary but getting slick with sleet, sucking a butt and feeling about as awful as he must have looked.
“Dad, what are you doing out here?”
Of course both children disapproved, Carolyn with her mother’s martyrly grace and Chris with righteous asperity: “I hear those are really good for you, Dad.” Clint steeled himself to hear it again. “I’ll be in in a minute.”
“Oh. Actually, I was about to join you.” Chris pulled a pack of Marlboros from his suit coat.
“Aw shit” was all Clint could say. He was not shocked. Several years earlier, having slunk downstairs for an insomniac’s Scotch-and-butt, he had found Carolyn cheek-to-forearm on the dining room table, amid books and unbound paper, stained coffee cup to one side, tray crammed with crushed-out Virginia Slims to the other. He took away the tray and the empty pack to let her know someone had noticed. But if she still smoked, it was on the sly. Clint imagined she did not.
Chris lifted his chin. “OK, go ahead, let me have it.”
“Forgive me if I’m distracted.”
“Yeah. Shitty time to unveil my dirty secret, eh?”
Clint saw nothing of his lighting routine in his son’s studied crispness. But he spotted the dodge: Chris might have believed this would bind them, but really he just needed to smoke.
“Did she know?”
“Mom? Nah. Tell Mom? Hoo boy.” Chris’s wagging head issued a wavy lash of smoke. “No, her I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t have borne the disappointment. You were another matter.”
“Oho. Long ago. Fifteen, Sixteen.”
“Even as I blasted you for it, oh yeah. I guess I figured you could help it and I couldn’t.”
“Ah. So I what? Cursed you?”
“Something like that. Maybe not bred in the bone, but, well, breathed in the air.”
As Clint looked around the bar, at men and women Chris’s age and younger, he wondered how many reprised parental habits, involuntarily, in spite or in defiance. He passed through a cloud as he slipped by a line of women waiting for the restroom, and he pretended to blow his nose when he daubed his eyelid.
The first time he’d tasted this dish, he’d shared an earthenware platter with Eve at a restaurant nestled in a slender terrace of Colle Val d’Elsa, a moldering town slung atop a ridge on the way to Volterra. Their gaunt, one-eyed wraith of a waiter had urged the meal on them, acclaiming in cumbrous English, and with wretched lubricity, the aphrodisiac properties of arugula. Ever practical, and maybe a little embarrassed, Eve surmised the cook had a fine cut of tenderloin that otherwise would rot. And fine it was, soft as souffle; the silky oil tempered the stiff leaves. Clint remembered chewing deliberately, reluctant to let a bite past his palate, while watching a three-wheeled motorcart drone laboriously up the next ridge.
A dopplering siren accented this dish, and his reluctant companions fidgeted. Each had set aside a picked-at salad plate. About once a minute, the man checked his watch. The woman glared at the building entrance when she was not watching the waiter taking orders and delivering plates. Evidently they had somewhere to be — an alien notion in Clint’s crimped world — and Clint wondered how they had estimated time for dinner. The waiter was a little harried, but they would not be much further along were they the only diners. Besides, do you want to dine, or feed?
The woman tossed her napkin on her plate. “Well, we’ll just have to forget about it.” This sentence rattled like kaleidoscope glass.
The man’s face creased in the aspect of one accustomed to accounting for the uncontrollable. He took a toothpick from his shirt pocket and vigorously mined his molars. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said at length.
The woman stood, snarled, “I have to use the restroom.”
Clint had a smoker’s ken for an opening. He crossed his silverware over the remains of his meal and reached into his jacket. “She’ll be a while,” he told the man. “I saw the line. YOU don’t mind, do you?” And he gave the man a glower, conspiratorial and bullying, that tests masculine solidarity.
The man glanced to check that his wife was gone, then mumbled, “No, go ahead.”
Clint lit a cigarette and wedged another filter against the open lid. “You?”
The man glanced at the Silk Cut, then jabbed between bicuspids with his toothpick. “I don’t smoke, thanks.”
“I shouldn’t, of course, but, well, ‘old habits.’”
“Something tells me you’ve quit?”
From a facial flurry Clint inferred the man was torn between seizing a sympathetic ear and telling him to buzz off. Compromise produced a mechanical smile and the words, “Had to.”
Palming his wine glass with his cigarette hand, Clint leaned back. A smoky old Buick pistoned in and out of a too-small space across 16th Street, while traffic backed up and horns blared. Thinking of the motorcart on the Tuscan hill, Clint swirled the wine, took a nosy sip, swallowed it in stages. Then he pulled on the cigarette. “Doctor’s orders, eh?”
“Yes. My wife’s.”
“Ah. I wondered. Cancer?”
“Mm. She smoked?”
Clint saw where this ended. He imagined Eve accepting Holden’s Gauloise. Would she have had the same reaction he’d had in Korea? He sucked greedily on his Silk Cut, tugged the smoke into every pulmonary cavity, dozily spent it from his nostrils.
“You’re not married?”
Having abandoned the austere conversation, Clint figured the man had, too. “Uh, no,” he grunted, and should have left it at that. But he could never leave it at that. “My wife died, about a year ago.”
Of course the man said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” but his eyes seemed to appeal, not for commiseration, but for the relief a comparatively deeper anguish affords. “Was she… sick?”
“I’m afraid so,” Clint mumbled, twisting the cigarette, examining the lengthening ash.
“I… hope she didn’t… Forgive me, it’s none of my business.”
“That’s all right, I don’t mind.” Clint leaned forward, propped his chin on the palm of his cigarette hand.
“And… she smoked?”
Clint pulled a last puff from the butt, felt warm smoke slip along his cheek. He rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand.