It was early October and I still had no friends to present to my father, who was coming up for my eighteenth birthday and a National Dairy Board Conference in Syracuse. "Biff, Scooter, Tripp and I got plowed at the big game last weekend" was the kind of shit my brother used to sling over the wires from his frat at UVA, the kind of shit to send my father out to the driveway hoop to play horse with my stepbrothers. All my life news from my vicinity sent his hand checking for his half-glasses in his vest pocket. I couldn't conjure any Scooters to pal with for his visit, and worse, I had used up valuable conversation over the phone.
"Daddy, it took me the longest time to figure out the difference between an elastic and inelastic good. Demand constant with price fluctuations. I graphed it out." It sounded idiotic, but I crashed on. "So I would guess that milk, being a staple, would have an inelastic demand."
He caught my hook. "You'd be surprised, son."
"How much milk we have to destroy."
"Why is that, sir?"
"The government makes us dump it. Dairy farmers grow too much. People don't drink more milk just because it costs less. Think about it."
"But it's milk. How can you destroy milk?" It's true I hate to see half a glass go down the drain. Unfortunately my sympathy stopped our dialogue in microeconomic theory.
"You need money?"
"What about your birthday?"
He laughed and said he'd see me Saturday.
After hanging up, I looked at my French reader until a knock at the door reminded me I had one friend. Coming in, Spencer Mercer hissed that his roommate, Josh Aranow, had imported Jan Shrader over for more giggly lasciviousness. I could hear early James Taylor warming her up through the cinderblock wall that separated our rooms.
Spencer dealt our three-thousandth hand of gin rummy, his fingers moving like crabs over the cards. The Cornell Hotel School could not have produced a more dissimilar twosome than squat, gummy Josh and ruddy, freakish tall, hornbilled Spencer Mercer, who could not appreciate his likeness to Ichabod Crane, as he was from Bermuda. Spencer's fidelity to cards and cultural exchange discharged me from the roll call of the untouchables. We always played facing my open door and turned up our volume when others walked by, a desperate ruse we chose not to acknowledge to one another.
Spencer was also my first experience in gauging how rich people might turn out to be. After a week of rummy, I asked him whether he was part of the ruling class of Bermuda.
"The Queen rules Bermuda, silly."
"But I'll bet you help. Don't you?"
"We have some lovely property. And Dads is in the government. Bermuda doesn't need much looking after, actually."
"Have you any servants?"
I rephrased. "Have you many servants?"
"As many as are needed to keep the place up."
"That many," I nodded.
No one else was up as I stood at one end of the corridor, looking out the window for my father's car. We'd buy a Cornell sticker, maybe a shot glass, but then hours of what? He stepped out of the Buick, picked once, twice, at the right side of his crotch—a standard post-drive gesture of his—and I rushed down the stairs. The fifty-dollar birthday transaction happened during our embrace in the parking lot. The check poked out of my shirt pocket all day. I couldn't think of a subtle way to remove it.
"I don't know this place very well, sir."
"Elliott, don't get anxious."
He did have a clue, and that kept me from clutching. I let him talk. He told me about the new house he was going to build, a house big enough to hold the steps, the halfs, and me. He would be the chimney holding up its center.
He bought a pile of sweatshirts, a set of brandy snifters with the school crest, and when I nonchalantly let him know I'd played eighteen holes of golf with this guy from Bermuda (Spencer would never again sound so rugged), he pressed a pair of golf shoes on me with such vigor I thought he left cleat marks on my chest. I stopped him at the pitching wedge.
My father had it in his mind to get his son drunk on his eighteenth birthday. Muggsy's in Collegetown was the first place we spotted that served with lunch. I couldn't pretend I'd been in there before, so he ordered. I kept up my end by having one to his every two. When he overdid it with the waitress, I couldn't hide my embarrassment.
"Son," he said abruptly, "let me tell you about Lily Anne."
Wow. For turning legal in New York State, I was getting new facts of life.
"I know about Lily Anne."
"You know your mama's version of Lily Anne."
Looking outside, I saw an enfilade of streamers, pennants, and plaids heading for the Cornell Colgate game.
"You met Lily Anne."
"I never did."
"Do you remember going to a restaurant called the Ram, up in Richmond? I took you and Kennie there."
"I was only ten," I said in defense.
"If you remember you were ten, then you remember." It was unusual to have my Daddy feeding me cues.
"The bathrooms said Rams and Ewes and that is why"—I stopped. "She must have brought you your scotch."
"She brought you your meal too."
"It came late. I used to take off for the john when I got tired of waiting for my food. I must have really had to pee at the Ram because when I got back you told me to wait until I got into the bathroom to unzip. Did Lily Anne see me undo my fly in front of everybody?"
My father was giving me this look like having our dicks hang out was an endearing family trait. "She pointed it out."
"Great with kids, huh?"
"She had her own. She wanted to meet mine."
"You told Mama about their report cards."
He said shit son, drink up. Then a long long pause, the two of us swiping looks and making little man noises after chugs, a pause so long that for an instant I thought he was going to grab my hand. Finally, he half-laughed himself into wondering why I never asked him questions.
Instead of asking whether he wanted to go to the football game, I said, "What did Lily Anne say I was?"
"She talked to you. You had a conversation. You charmed her.
"That I don't remember."
"I didn't marry Lily Anne."
"Why are you telling me about her?"
"She's having a hysterectomy next month."
Was I supposed to send a card? After he left town with a beery kiss and another twenty to my shirt pocket, I sat in my desk chair and laced my golf cleats, amazed at how things can play out. He hadn't felt the need to explain the why or the what of Lily Anne, the cocktail waitress who tore our family up, but this matter of duration threw me. How could they still be in touch? Here he'd sired out of two women, confused his wives when in his cups, and decided that the impending loss of her lady parts was just cause for discussing his old mistress with me. I tried to shrug off this strange mantle he had dropped on my shoulders, but the beer buzz, plus a milestone passed, depressed me.
I ignored the gin rummy knock and felt homicidal when I read the formal birthday wishes Spencer Mercer slid under my door. I would either have to kill Spencer for being my changeling in pathos, or go mad. At dinner I ate three pieces of cake, as usual, but then, around nine, when I heard a knot of hall mates gather cross-legged outside their doors, instead of staring into a future of solitary intellectual overcompensation, I marched out and entertained the troops until they laughed. And after they laughed, I charmed them into asking me questions, then I got them to talk about themselves, and made smart-ass quips: I sang jingles, jogged their memories about defunct game shows, crappy hit songs of yesteryear, Saturday cartoons, double-play combinations, asked them what classes they were taking, talked in funny voices, overdid my drawl for humorous effect, practiced my golf swing offhandedly, talked smut hellbent for slick, asked out loud for drugs and booze, swapped S.A.T. scores, tap-danced to the window at the end of the hall and made them follow me, for I was ready to serenade some hapless coed with the theme song from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," I don't know what all else I did but I did it for two and a half hours. I only wished I could have spirited them asleep in the hallway so I could watch over them and make sure the cement dried among us all.
The next morning I made sure I was dressed and ready when they were heading off for breakfast. In another two days, they'd knock on my door before even attempting a meal. Two weeks after my birthday, I was their lieutenant.
James Magruder has lived in Baltimore for 25 years. His third book of fiction, "Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall," was published in June. Visit him at www.jamesmagruder.com.