Calderwood comes back with the water. He sits down and tastes the soup, which is thick and smooth and salty — one of his mother’s winter staples, taking him back to days of sledding and cross-country skiing. Big Ed holds the coffee mug in both hands and brings it carefully to his lips. The half-eaten cracker sits on the arm of the sofa. Ruth asks Ted about his work and he tries to change the subject. A real estate attorney in a mid-sized firm, he spends most of his days poring over leases and purchase-and-sale agreements — tedious crap — but he’s a partner now and you can’t beat the money.
When his mother persists, he says, “It’s boring stuff, Mom. Mostly just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The only thing that keeps it interesting is the negotiations. Then we get into good old-fashioned greed, everyone looking for an angle to make them feel like they’ve won.”
Big Ed perks up and says, “That reminds me of an article I read in the Globe a few years back. I wish I’d’ve cut out and sent it you, Teddy. It was about a guy named Harry Sawyer. Ever hear of him?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“He was a legend around Boston. Taxicabs, real estate, parking lots. Came here from Russia as a kid and dropped out of school in the third grade, but when it came to the art of negotiation, the man could’ve taught at Harvard Business School. I had a few dealings with him myself way back when. Talk about a tough old Jew. Harry would just wear you down. If he didn’t get what he wanted, he’d get up and walk out of the room and leave the deal on the table. The way he saw it, time was always on his side. If you didn’t pay what he was asking, next year his price was only going to be higher. He was ninety-three when the article in the Globe came out, still going to work every day. He had a son who worked for him for forty years, waiting to take over the business. Harry fired him when the kid was sixty-two.”
His father grins and takes a sip of coffee. Teddy remembers how people used to listen when his father told a story, the way they would lean into it, their faces rapt and admiring. Now the old man is back in form, the color returning to his face, blue eyes sparkling in their yellowed pools.
Big Ed says, “Anyway, one day Harry’s negotiating a deal over a piece of prime real estate in the heart of Boston. Post Office Square. The buyers are paying top dollar for the property. They offer Harry a fifteen-year lease on the underground parking garage. Harry’s holding out for twenty-five. Both sides start to dig in their heels. Pretty soon it looks like the whole deal is going to fall apart. Finally, Harry’s own lawyer throws up his hands in frustration and says, Come on, Harry, fifteen years is a fair offer. You’re ninety-three, for Christ’s sake. You can’t take it with you! Harry glares at him for a second and says . . . I ain’t going.”
Teddy and Ruth laugh at the story, but Big Ed is laughing the hardest of all, mocking death like Harry Sawyer, his irreverence punctuated by a loud sputtering fart.
“Excuse me,” he says, grinning. Then he farts again.
Ruth says, “Do you need to change your bag?”
Big Ed nods and she gets up and leaves as the stink fills the room. It takes Calderwood a second to catch on. Then he remembers that his father has had a colostomy, that he shits through a hole where his navel used to be. Calderwood goes to the hearth and throws another log on the fire. When Ruth returns with a bucket of supplies, he excuses himself and says he’s going upstairs to take a shower. He tries to make it seem as if he’s giving the old man some privacy, sparing him the embarrassment, but Teddy knows that this is something he never wants to see.
* * *
In the late afternoon the three of them watch television, reruns of old comedies — Archie Bunker, The Jeffersons, Taxi.
“I missed these shows the first time around,” Big Ed says. “Some of them are real funny.”
Calderwood asks him if he does much reading and his father says not much, mostly he just looks through the travel books on the coffee table. Ruth says they don’t even get the newspaper anymore. Teddy recommends they try some books on tape, but Big Ed shrugs off the suggestion.
“Do you watch sports?” Calderwood asks him.
“Oh, sure. Hockey, basketball. I let the Red Sox break my heart again last summer. You know what I liked best? The U.S. women’s soccer team winning the World Cup. Oh, man, those girls are such terrific athletes. Like beautiful gazelles or leopards.”
“You can say that again.”
“Did you see the finals? That last penalty kick when—” He stops in mid-sentence and lifts one finger as if he’s listening to a distant sound, then his whole body whiplashes and his head snaps back, a horrible gurgling sound in his throat.
Calderwood leaps from his chair. He looks at his mother, but she simply closes her eyes and lets her chin drop to her chest. Big Ed is coiled against the pain, hands clutching the blanket on his lap, his face a tortured grimace, foamy saliva dribbling from the corners of his mouth. For a moment they are all suspended in time and space. Then Big Ed’s body slowly begins to relax. He lets go of the blanket and wipes away the drool with the back of his sleeve. His watch cap is askew and Ruth reaches over and fits it back on his head.
“Come on, Teddy,” she says. “Let’s leave your father alone for awhile.” She gets up from the couch and loops her arm through his.
He takes a step or two then turns to the old man and says. “This is crazy. Why won’t you take something?”
Big Ed looks up, his eyes blank, as if he doesn’t understand the question.
“Teddy, please,” Ruth says, and he lets her lead him away.
* * *
Calderwood takes his mother out to dinner in Peterborough. The restaurant is surprisingly upscale with one of those menus with lots of hyphenated adjectives like “pan-seared” and “almond-crusted.” They order a bottle of chardonnay and start drinking before the food comes. The wine helps them both to relax and they begin reminisce about some of their dogs — Snickers, the chocolate lab, who loved to chase the squirrels in the yard, and Macho, a West Highland terrier, who turned into the mad humper after he got fixed. In the middle of dinner, a friend of Ruth’s comes over to say hello. When Ruth introduces Teddy, the woman smiles and tells him how much he looks like Big Ed.
“How’s he doing, Ruthie?” the woman asks.
“Are you still taking him over to Keene for the chemo?”
“No. It’ll take a miracle now, Helen.”
“I’ll say a prayer for him.”
After the woman goes back to her table, Ruth whispers, “Helen lost her husband last summer.”
“Do you think she’ll find him?”
She laughs — giggles really — and Calderwood remembers how pretty she can be. “For her sake, I hope not. If that man had won the lottery, all he’d do is gripe about the taxes.”
The waitress brings the dessert menu. They both get tea and Calderwood orders a slice of key lime pie.
“So,” Ruth says, “how’re things going outside of work?”
“Fine. I’ve been doing some jogging, trying to keep in shape.”
“You seeing anyone special?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Do you ever see Phyllis?”
Calderwood and Phyllis were engaged for a short while four years ago. Phyllis moved into his condo and Ruth got to talk with her a few times on the telephone. Now Ruth speaks of her as if she were her long lost daughter-in-law, mother manqué of the grandchildren Ruth has been denied. Back at the house there’s a framed photograph of him and Phyllis on the mantel.
“I really liked her,” Ruth says wistfully.
“Me too, Mom.”
“So what happened?”