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Excerpt: 'The Family Man'

by Elinor Lipman
May 26, 2009

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Here It Is

Todd will say, "I wasn't even in sight of the restaurant, yet I looked up and there's this guy checking his watch - gray-haired, lawyerly, obviously nervous, obviously love-starved despite devastating good looks - so I say to the woman with the twin stroller who's standing between us, 'Excuse me. May I trade places with you? I think that handsome gentleman to your right is my blind date.'"

In fact, all that is exchanged on the corner of 86th and Broadway is a "Henry?" which evokes a "Todd?" followed by a handshake and a shared laugh over sound hunches.

"Delighted to meet you," says Henry.

The light changes. Todd will testify, in his future Technicolor version, that the mom with the stroller calls over her shoulder, "Have fun, you two."

They don't even make it to the sushi restaurant, but duck into a bar that is near-empty, its small round tables and little lamps suggesting a swing-era nightclub. They both order martinis, the house specialty: one cantaloupe and one peach.

What does Todd look like? Later Henry will describe him this way to Sheri Abrams, PhD: You know the short, redheaded boy in high school whose mother put creases in all his clothes? Cleancut and very cute? Probably on the gymnastics team? Add thirty years and a few inches to the waist. Et voilà.

Denise is, of course, the men's fi rst topic of conversation. Henry asks how they met, and Todd says, "I crashed a party she threw. No, I take that back. I went along to help the caterer, a friend; okay, maybe a boyfriend - that lasted a minute. But I was useless, all thumbs - ever try to pipe deviled egg fi lling out of a pastry bag? - so I took off my apron and joined the party. Eventually Denise noticed me and asked, 'Have we met?' I said, 'I came with the caterer, but he threw me out of the kitchen so I decided to console myself with a glass of your excellent champagne.' She didn't mind. In fact, she was very gracious. She introduced me to the guests of honor - her stepsons - as her new friend Todd and didn't miss a beat."

"I heard about that party," says Henry. "The boys had just been

made partners."

"Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Ever have the pleasure?"

"Never."

"Not that I talked to either one of them, but my impression was: merchant princes who think they're Donald Trump Junior and Donald Trump Junior the Second. Ever meet the husband?"

"I did once. Socially." Henry raises his eyebrows above the rim of his glass. "Before I knew he was sleeping with my wife."

"Ouch. Sorry. But I have to say I didn't see what the attraction was, unless he cut a more dashing figure in his adulterous youth. Quite the gasbag, too. He gave an endless self- congratulatory toast to his new partners that was all about the boom in the box business. I sneaked out before he finished."

Henry confides, "You know, I'm sure, that he left everything to those boys."

"I most certainly did not know!"

"There was a pre-nup. Which Denise signed, then promptly suppressed. As you can imagine, she was back in touch with me with a vengeance."

"Not for money!"

"For advice. And - please note the irony of this - a shoulder to cry on."

"What about the daughter?"

"What about the daughter?" Henry asks carefully.

"Diana? Athena? Something mythological, right?"

Henry says only, "It's Thalia, who was one of the Muses. So, yes, mythological."

Todd leans closer, squints diagnostically. "And how should I characterize that expression on your face?"

Don't be tempted, Henry thinks. Don't start waxing euphoric and paternal.

"You can trust me," says Todd. "I mean that." His grin is gone, replaced with a gaze so solemn that the next thing Henry says is, "Thalia and I are reunited. You probably don't know that I adopted her when I married Denise, then lost her in the divorce."

"I didn't even know about you, let alone which child came from which husband and who was lost in the process."

"I was husband number two. Denise's first husband died when Thalia was a baby."

"Which makes her how old now . . . ?"

"Twenty-nine." Henry smiles. "Which is all I can say unless I have your promise that what I tell you won't be reported to her mother."

Todd raises his right hand. "I solemnly swear that whatever you say to me, right now, or next week, or a year, or ten years from now, will stay between the two of us." Another solemn gaze goes straight to Henry's bloodstream. Immediately, Todd says,

"Sorry. Tell me about the daughter."

"Thalia. She's great. I didn't have to go looking for her because she works at the salon where I have my hair cut."

"Who recognized who?"

"I saw her picture at Denise's and recognized her."

"And what's the confidential part I must never tell Denise?"

Henry, though still holding on to news of the misguided Hollywood arrangement, feels free to say, "We've been reunited. So far, seamlessly. She seems to have come through the divorce, and through Denise, unscathed."

"And how did Thalia turn out?"

"Wonderfully."

"Actress, right?"

"Some TV. Making inroads."

"Beautiful?" Todd asks.

"More interesting than beautiful."

"Spoken like a true father," says Todd.

"Thank you," says Henry. "And just in case I forget to mention

it, Denise doesn't know that Thalia and I have been reunited."

"Doesn't know and won't find out?"

Henry smiles. "I think I'm punishing her. She had an exclusive for twenty-five years, and it's my turn. It helps that mother and daughter aren't on speaking terms -"

"Since when?"

"I don't ask -"

"I could ask for you," Todd says happily.

Too much, too fast? Henry wonders. But no, he's wrong. Todd is joking. Todd is not overstepping the line between Thalia and the rest of the population that Henry is monitoring. Todd lowers his voice. "You weren't at Krouch's funeral, were you?"

"I wasn't. But I heard about it. Denise told me she rambled on about stupid stuff . Trivia. She couldn't get out of the hole she was digging."

"Did she tell you that the sons walked out? First one, then the other, wives trotting after them. Then one by one their stiff - necked friends."

"I didn't get the impression it was that bad."

"Bad? It was fabulous! Although I may not be the best judge of what's offensive at the funeral of someone I hardly knew."

"At what point did the sons walk out?"

"I believe," Todd says dryly, "that that particular point would have been . . . let me see . . . the vasectomy soliloquy."

"No," says Henry. "Not even Denise -"

"Yes! To the tune of: He never told me until we were married that I couldn't have his child. Well, maybe I knew, but it didn't sink in until we were on our honeymoon. He had you two boys, the heir and the spare, and Thalia, you were his princess, DNA notwithstanding. My biggest regret - read: grudge - was that we didn't have a child together. Subtext: to even the sides. And then we heard how the boys' away games ruled their weekends for at least a dozen years, further testimony to Glenn being father of the year, every damn year, all twenty-four of them. P.S. He had no interest whatsoever in reversing the vasectomy."

Henry, who has been shaking his head throughout, asks wearily, "Was she drunk?"

"If only!"

"Was this in a church?"

"A chapel in a funeral home. Do you think she'd have said anything different if it was Saint John the Divine?"

"No wonder she's been ostracized. No wonder she turned to me. I must be the only person she knows who missed this."

Todd says, "Please don't be saintly about this. Because if you're saying Denise isn't the most outrageous widow who ever gave a eulogy, I'm afraid I have to go home now."

Does Henry feel a pinch of loyalty or pity for the inappropriate Denise? No, he does not. He slides the check toward his side of the table and says, "I'll get this one."

Up the street, they secure the last two seats at the sushi bar, not ideal for conversation, but most agreeable for meaningful contact between adjacent shoulders.

"What do I do?" Todd volunteers before Henry asks. "That's always an awkward question."

Henry waits, hoping this isn't the moment when Todd's resumé reveals something unsavory and insurmountable, or a lifetime of dead-end auditions. "Awkward because . . . ?" Henry ventures.

"Because it usually stops the conversation dead."

"Out with it," Henry says. "Unless it's something I wouldn't want to testify to under oath."

"Here it is," says Todd. "The humble truth: I'm in retail. In table tops. At Gracious Home."

On one hand, Henry is relieved; on the other, a question relating to Last year of education completed? rears its snobbish head.

"Which store?" he asks.

"Here," says Todd. "Broadway and Sixty-seventh. And, believe me, I know: It's not a career a mother brags about over a game of bridge."

"But you like it?"

"I do," says Todd. "I like my coworkers, and" - he smiles - "I get to make the Upper West Side's table tops a little more beautiful."

One of the two sushi chefs puts the fi nishing touch on an elaborate roll, looks up, and asks the men what they want.

"Are we hungry?" Todd asks Henry.

"Quite."

Todd points to a model vessel behind the chef. "I've always wanted to get the Samurai Sushi Boat. You game?"

The chef asks, "You like challenging?"

"Excuse me?" asks Henry.

"Challenging or beginner?"

Henry turns to Todd, who says, "Let's go for it."

"Challenging," says Henry. "And we'll get two more Kirins."

All tables are filled, and there is a line of patrons waiting to be seated. Anyone observing the two men would be surprised to learn that they'd only met this night. They are both whittling splinters off their chopsticks as they joke about the big boat that will - in both retellings - become the centerpiece anecdote of Our First Date.

Excerpted from The Family Man by Elinor Lipman © 2009 by Elinor Lipman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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