They were supposed to go out to dinner with the older sister and her boyfriend, but Whit didn’t want to. It would mean getting dressed up, at least to the point of wearing a blazer, and pretending that he cared about things he didn’t want to care about for several years, like how much money you made, where you could afford to live, things like that.
He was happy with what they had on Beacon Street, a bedroom in the basement and a kitchen and sitting room that looked out on the Boston Common on the ground floor. Even though it wasn’t much it still cost more than he wanted to pay. Marcie’s sister was already angling for a nicer place in Manhattan, and had let it be known that her boyfriend could make enough money trading in a day to furnish the place when they got it.
All of that talk washed over him like a morning shower. He didn’t care; they were part of another world, one he didn’t figure he’d be joining for a long time.
Unfortunately sisters are family, and so he had to deal with one who had a Harvard M.B.A. and never let you forget it.
“Are you about ready?” Marcie asked as she inserted her post earrings, not the clip-on kind she wore to work at her job as a dean’s assistant at B.U.
“I just want to watch the end of this game,” he said.
“They’re going to be here soon,” she said.
Maybe they’ll have an accident on the way, he thought to himself, imagining the boyfriend’s BMW getting into a fender-bender as he took a right on Charles Street, the intersection where Whit’s Chevy had been totaled by a drunk turning up the hill and not noticing—at two a.m. after a Saturday night of drinking–that the lane changed into parking once you were on Beacon Street.
He’d received a grand total of $500 salvage for that car because he couldn’t afford to insure it for replacement value, not while he was living in Boston, and now they were car-less, which as it turned out wasn’t that inconvenient except when her sister Delia was in town. Then it was a headache because their apartment wasn’t big enough or nice enough for Delia—she didn’t want to sleep on the couch–so they had to make arrangements to get to restaurants wherever she was staying.
“They’re out front,” Marcie said expectantly as she wound her scarf around her neck, and he reluctantly stood up. Miami was up by less than a touchdown and B.C. had the ball with time for one more play, but there was a final timeout that would probably drag on for five minutes.
“We have to go,” she said with finality, and started to move towards the door. He turned off the television and put his coat on, locked the door behind them, and made his way down the front steps, where earlier that morning the proprietary bum of the premises had been sunning himself.
They exchanged hellos, crisp and unfriendly between him and the sister, affable and superficial between him and her boyfriend, John. He got along fine with the guy, even though there was a great distance between them on many fronts; the boyfriend had brought shoe trees for his tassel loafers to the house the girls grew up in last Thanksgiving, while he had brought jazz for dinner; Zoot Sims, the Count Basie Kansas City 7 sessions—light stuff that would fill the air between the long silences that the girls’ mother seemed to carry with her wherever she went since their father walked out on her.
“Do you know how to get there?” Delia asked John. He’d lived in New York his whole life and was in a constant state of exasperation driving in Boston.
“I go back down Storrow to the B-School, right?” he said.
“Right, then turn onto Boylston Street and into the Square,” she said.
As they drove, Marcie and Delia talked; after the first exchange of greetings Marcie would slowly fill up with the afflatus she needed to ask her older, more accomplished sister a question, then blurt it out like a balloon bursting.
“Are you going to get a place on Nantucket next summer?” Marcie asked.
“Are we?” Delia purred at John.
“Depends on what kind of year I have, sweetie,” he said in an even tone that betrayed no particular disposition one way or the other.
“John has had a house with friends in the Hamptons ever since he got out of college–right?”
“Yep—same old crowd. Can’t beat it.”
“They’ll probably all be in the wedding,” Delia said with a knowing look back at her sister, who was moved to exclaim her surprise and excitement.
“Congratulations,” he said to the front seat, although he meant it for John the way a commoner would commend a prince. He didn’t expect the guy to care, he just thought it was what he should say.
“Thanks,” John said with the same investment of emotion he would make in the purchase of a cup of coffee. “Is this it?” he asked Delia as they approached a bridge over the Charles.
“No, the next one,” she replied, then turned to show Marcie her ring.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “It’s beautiful!”
He didn’t know what to say. Was a guy supposed to compliment an engagement ring? He figured not, or at least not so effusively, that it was a girl thing.
“Nice,” was all he could muster after he’d thought about it. He assumed Delia didn’t give a shit what he thought.
They parked the car in the lot by the trolley barns at the end of the Red Line, then made their way to a new restaurant that Delia had read about in The New York Times; for her things didn’t happen, didn’t exist unless she read them in the Times, or one of her friends or colleagues told her about them. There was a crowd around the door but Delia had made reservations and, now used to the jammed humanity of Manhattan, made her way through the waiting masses to the maitre d’s station. He followed John, who cut a path through the throng like an icebreaker crashing towards the North Pole, and they took their seats in a banquette booth.
“It’s received rave reviews,” Delia said as she opened up her menu, and he marveled inwardly at the stiffness of her speech. He wondered if she’d been born that way, or whether four years of Wellesley and two more in business school had straightened out her tongue like a freshly-ironed cotton blouse. Why didn’t she just say “gotten” like anyone else would have, he thought, then realized that would have sounded too American; she’d drunk at the fount of Anglophilia too long and liked to sprinkle her conversation with affectations such as “spot on” and quote—with approval—sayings of British snobs, like “Never brown in town,” which she used as a smiling put-down of the tan suit he’d bought as soon as he graduated in order to get him through the summer.
He looked at the menu, moving from right to left to check prices first, then the dishes. He had to admit that Delia was good about taking care of a larger share of the bill when they bought expensive wine, but he knew to keep the total down, that way the sum owed by the less affluent half of the table would be lower; he’d mentioned this strategy to Marcie and she’d said “Delia will take care of it,” which she would, in exchange for Marcie’s fawning admiration. Still, he hated the reckoning at the end of the night. Delia would whip out her American Express and they’d pay her cash, some of which she’d always refuse with an air of noblesse oblige. It was irritating, but he had to put up with it.
The menu had the eccentricity he’d come to expect of the nouvelle joints Delia dragged them to; there was a dish that included not bananas, but banana skins, which were wrapped around something else as it baked; tripe, venison and other weird meats; and monkfish, an ugly-looking sea monster that no one ate until Julia Child proclaimed that it tasted like lobster.
“I think I’m going to have the steak,” John said. Bless you, Whit thought to himself. He could always count on the big hitter to scorn culinary affectations in favor of the familiar; he saved his experimentation for the wine list. “What about you, sweetie?”
“I think I’m going to have the veal dish,” Delia said with critical, narrowed eyelids that made it look as if she thought the menu was the financial statements of a company her investment bank was thinking of taking public.
“It sounds good,” Marcie said. He guessed that she’d order it too, flattering her sister by imitation. “That’s what I’m going to have.” Bingo.
He hoped no one would ask him what he was having; he didn’t like their showing off about food, and didn’t care to join in. “How about you, Whit?” Delia asked him politely enough.
He hated being put on the spot, and he hadn’t made up his mind—then he saw sweetbreads on the menu.
“They have sweetbreads!” he said with genuine appetite.
“What are those?” Marcie asked.
He started to answer but Delia interrupted. “It’s liver, I think,” she said.
“Actually, it’s the pancreas of a sheep,” he said, correcting her gently, but not overly so. “The chef at a restaurant where I worked used to fix them for me.”
“Really?” John asked, more an exclamation than a question. “Don’t believe I’ve ever had them before.”
“You can literally cut them with a fork,” he said. “That’s what I’m having.”
He looked at Delia who was giving him a bitter little smile–she didn’t like to be corrected. He wondered how she did in negotiations—she had the “tells” of a rookie poker player.
The waiter came and took their orders, John made a big deal of choosing the wine, and when it was brought to the table he went through the whole rigmarole with the cork and sniffing and tasting it. He wished he’d had a beer before they left the apartment.
There was a TV over the bar but it wasn’t the kind of place where people actually watched once the night action got going; the place was too hip for that, but he noticed men were crowding down to the end to watch a football replay. He looked over and squinted to enhance his nearsighted vision, then heard a yell—not quite a cheer, more an exclamation—go up from the guys at the bar.
“What was that for?” John asked.
“Something happened at the end of the B.C. game,” Whit said, and got up to go over and look.
He made his way down the bar and saw that the replay was in a loop, being played over and over again. The little quarterback Flutie scrambled around, almost got tackled, then lofted a pass to the end zone that the receiver caught through a crowd. B.C. must have won, he thought, and I missed it. He confirmed the fact of the victory and walked back to the table.
John had already lost interest in whatever had happened and was telling Marci about the new Jaguar he’d ordered when Whit got back to the table. They continued talking for a few minutes until Marcie was suitably impressed and there was a lull in the conversation. “So what happened?” John asked.
“B.C. beat Miami on the last play of the game,” he said without showing any enthusiasm, knowing neither Marcie nor Delia would be interested.
“Really? That was a big game, right?” John said.
“Yeah. Both teams were in the top ten I think.”
“Top ten of what?” Delia said.
“Football,” John said with a buffered paternalistic tone, “not academics.”
“Oh,” Delia said, then rolled her eyes at Marcie.
“That’s what I missed when we had to leave,” he said to Marcie, gently rubbing it in.
“Well, you just saw it, so you’re fine, right?” Marcie said.
“Yeah, but it’s always nice to see it live.”
The waiter brought the salads and did the unctuous freshly ground pepper thing that had suddenly become obligatory. He remembered a time when restaurants would just put pepper on the table—he figured that wasn’t good enough anymore, not at $25 an entrée, you had to have some ceremony.
They ate and talked for awhile. He hung back and let the other three carry the ball; he didn’t feel inadequate, but Delia was the kind of person who would pounce on you, while John lived in a high-rent cocoon and was constantly amazed by plain and simple facts of life; not everyone had gone to private school or had a summer place when they were growing up, that sort of thing. He was like a Richie Rich in the comics, or Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. on TV; he’d led a privileged life, but he was a nice enough guy.
“Are you going to see the Met when it comes to Boston in the spring?” Delia asked Marcie, now on to opera. The three of them were opera buffs.
“You’ve gotta hear that Janáček one,” John interjected.
“We’re going to do the whole Ring Cycle,” Marcie said ambitiously, as if she’d just announced they were going to run a marathon together.
“That ain’t necessarily so,” Whit said, recalling a song from the one opera he knew, trying to gently put the kibosh on her plan to make him sit through what she’d told him would be fifteen hours of high culture.
“‘Isn’t’,” Delia corrected him.
“I was quoting from ‘Porgy and Bess,’” he said in self-defense.
“I don’t think that’s a real opera, and it’s still bad English,” Delia sniffed.
He flushed it bit, and almost succeeded in holding back. “Actually, it’s perfectly good English,” he said. “You’ll find respectable characters in Dickens and Austen and Trollope using it.”
“Well, no one but tacky people say it in Connecticut, where the most perfect English is spoken.”
The other two were still, not knowing or caring about the question. He looked at Delia’s eyes, which were narrowed as if she were daring him to make something of it.
“That’s not true,” he said after a moment. “The purest American English is spoken in the Appalachians, where early settlers became isolated from trade. The highest-status English may be spoken in Connecticut, but it’s not the most perfect.”
John spoke up. “You can’t say ‘most perfect,’ can you?” he said with a half-smile. “Once something’s perfect, it either is or it isn’t.”
“I don’t know,” Whit replied. “That’s what they tell you in school, but school teachers are just the referees of language. Writers are the players.”
“Those who can, do—those who can’t, teach,” John said with a smile. Whit appreciated the support, but figured John didn’t even know whom he was quoting.
“Whoever drafted the Constitution said ‘more perfect union,’ so I guess it’s okay,” Whit said. “It has a nice ring to it.”
Delia seemed content to let the subject drop; maybe she hadn’t anticipated that he’d actually have a defense for his gauche language. The waiter brought their entrées, there were effusions all around, and the four of them settled down to eating with less talk than before.
He dropped back to a submissive posture, considering things at the animal level. He let Delia hold court with John while Marcie gushed at every new luxury they described. He’d stood his ground on the one thing he cared about, and that was enough for him.
When their plates had been cleared and the women had ordered dessert—dense chocolate cake—Marcie and John excused themselves to use the rest rooms, leaving Whit alone with Delia. There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment, then Delia spoke.
“So how do you think ‘ain’t’ came to be unfashionable?” He sensed that she said the last word defensively.
“Don’t know. A lot of Southerners sent their sons back to school in England, while Northerners started their own schools because they didn’t have slaves and needed their sons to work their farms. So you could have had Puritans in New England looking down their noses at people from the south and hillbillies to the west, thinking they were better than them and they weren’t going to talk like them.”
“Did you learn that in college?” Delia asked.
“I took a year of linguistics, but that theory’s something that just occurred to me.”
“Hmm,” Delia said as she pursed her lips and nodded slightly. “Interesting.” She took a swallow of wine, then looked up with a thin smile as John rejoined them. “I don’t think I’ll be changing,” she said as she wiped the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “I’m going to stick with ‘isn’t.’”
image is the original set of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, The Colonial Theater, Boston, 1935