“Let’s not stay too long, okay?” Tom eased the Chevy off the 94 exit north onto Mayfair Road toward Elm Grove. The ritzy suburb of Milwaukee where all the big shots lived. At least that’s what Kirby had told him twenty times over the last eight hours.
“Are you kidding? She’s my best friend from school,” said Kirby, her voice rising. “We’ve got ten years to catch up on.”
“Look, you’ve got all weekend to yuck it up. I’ve been driving all day and we still have to get to the hotel and unpack. I’m just saying we don’t need to spend all night there. They’ll understand.”
“How about you keep the car running and I’ll run up and wave at her through the window? That quick enough for you?”
Tom rolled his eyes and bit his tongue. It was a long drive from Cleveland and they were both tired. No sense in getting started. The sun had gone down somewhere around Chicago and the new, brighter halogen streetlights had his eyes spinning in their sockets. At forty-one, he probably needed glasses, but he was the last holdout in his crowd and it was a point of pride he didn’t want to yield.
The stuff they were paving highways with now was jet black. All Tom could see was the streetlights and the stripes. There was no feeling of the road beneath him—like he was piloting a plane through the midnight sky. Only the rattles of the Chevy and the soft hum of the tires told him his wheels were down.
His butt was numb again and he shifted around in his seat to get the blood flowing. The days were long gone when he could put twenty-four straight hours in the saddle.
“In one hundred feet turn left onto State Route 18.”
Yeah, yeah, I see it. Shut up, already. He appreciated the directions, but the voice was getting on his nerves. It had the hacksaw edge of Sister Corita, his fifth grade math teacher. Like she was going to swat his hand with a ruler if he made the wrong turn. He wheeled left.
This was the weekend Tom had been dreading all summer. Kirby’s twentieth year high school reunion. If it was anything like the tenth, he’d spend the hours in a hard metal folding chair by himself in a corner of some cheap hotel banquet room tossing down diet Cokes and stale chips. Listening to some neighborhood band play Brittney Spears clunkers. Even worse, Kirby’s BFF Gloria now was married to a hotshot surgeon in the burbs and she’d been bending Kirby’s ear all year about what a fairy tale life they had. That meant Kirby would be comparing Tom to Dr. Wonderful all weekend and he knew who was coming out on the short end of that stick. Then when she got back home, an agonizing reappraisal of her life and status. Maybe redecorating, or a boob job or a new house, even, not that they could afford it. No way was anything good coming out of this weekend.
Still, it was important to Kirby. Especially seeing Gloria. She’d gone through some bad times over the last ten years and this marriage was still pretty green. Tom could handle playing wallflower again for a couple days if it meant giving Kirby and Gloria some space. Just keep his head down and his mouth shut.
“In a quarter of a mile turn right on Boardwalk Road.” Boardwalk? Wasn’t that the high rent property in Monopoly? A bad omen. He always lost his ass on Boardwalk. Tom reached down and punched the GPS off. In a quarter of a mile he turned right onto Boardwalk as ordered. The houses on each side were great dark shadows separated by wide lawns and clusters of trees.
“This is the street,” said Kirby. “Gloria said they had a big house. You can’t miss it.”
“It looks like all the houses are big out here.”
“Can you imagine living in one of these places?”
“Can you imagine paying for one of these places?”
“Can you imagine being a rich doctor who didn’t have to worry about it?”
Yeah, things were starting off just about like he figured. He slowed and looked for house numbers. “Twenty-two?” Only people with deep pockets could afford house numbers that low.
“There it is, on the left.”
A white 22 seemed suspended in the air. When they got closer, Tom could see it was mounted on a dark stone pylon. Slick design.
“There’s a gate,” said Tom. Stone creatures the size of Hulk Hogan flanked the gate and a low wall wandered off left and right. Maybe they’d have flamingos and little silver globes sprinkled across the lawn. He stopped the car. “You sure this is the right place?”
“Twenty-two. That’s what she said.”
Tom pulled past the gate and up the drive. “Look at this monster. This guy must be a Duke or an Earl or something. Think we’ll have to bow?”
“I’m pretty sure they don’t have Dukes in Wisconsin.” She patted Tom’s thigh. “Relax—Gloria says he’s really nice for a doctor.” Her voice turned serious. “Look, I know Gloria’s not the smartest girl on the block, but she’s had a rough time. Made some bad choices, had some bad luck. She deserves something nice like this. Give her a break, okay?”
“Me? What did I say?”
“You always have something to say. Just go easy.”
It was a two story mansion, brick, probably—Tom couldn’t be certain in the dark. Looking up, he could see the shape of gables against the purple sky. A long stone terrace ran across the front, with lots of large lighted windows on the first floor. Gloria wasn’t exaggerating.
What could he talk about with this guy while the girls were catching up? What could they possibly have in common? ‘How ‘bout them Packers, eh? No, sorry, I didn’t notice how the Dow Jones did today—our portfolio is primarily commodities: milk, hamburger, paper towels.’ He stopped the car in front of the stone stairway.
“Well?” Tom asked. “Ready for this?”
“Tom, it’s just two days, two and a half. It’s not going to kill you. Suck it up.” Kirby got out and Tom followed.
“Watch out for the moat,” Tom whispered. “There might be serpents.”
“Stop. You’re just jealous.”
Damn right. Nervous, too.
As soon as they hit the terrace, lights sunk into the stone popped on, marking the path to the door. Tom heard a chime, probably the doorbell, letting them know that peasants from the village were calling. In a few steps, the front door swung open and Gloria stood there jumping up and down and squealing. She had an orange pompom and a blue one and she threw one to Kirby. They started shaking them and singing their silly fight song, linking arms and spinning around in a circle. They were cheerleaders twenty years ago and the school spirit hadn’t worn off yet.
Gloria wore some kind of white, filmy pants outfit. She was tall and busty and very tan, and she didn’t look an hour older than she had a decade ago. Maybe Dr. Terrific did some plastic work on the side. Her long, fine hair created a golden halo around her as she spun. A cute chick with a double-digit IQ—exactly the type who’d end up with a rich doc in the burbs. Kirby, on the other hand, had short dark hair and was sharper than a pointed stick. Just the type to end up with a balding, middle aged designer.
Finally they ran out of verses to the fight song and Gloria hugged Kirby, then Tom, then Kirby again.
“Come, come, come. You have to meet Richard.” She grabbed Kirby’s arm and dragged her inside and down the white-carpeted hallway. The carpeting was incredibly thick and soft. Tom resisted the urge to take off his shoes and socks and sink his bare feet into it. He tiptoed after the girls, inspecting the sculpture and pottery. He’d never seen sculpture in a hallway before. Not in somebody’s house. In fact, most of the houses he’d been in didn’t even have hallways. Most of the work was traditional ceramic pottery or abstract metal sculptures a foot to a foot and a half tall, sitting on white pedestals. Modern and simple, though a little garish for his taste. Lots of chrome. He lifted a snazzy stoneware pot, looking for the artist’s signature on the bottom. No signature, but a slight ridge running across the middle—a mold mark. It was a mass-produced mold job, not an original from the potter’s wheel. A couple hundred bucks, tops, probably got it on-line. Never even seen the inside of a gallery. It didn’t feel right, didn’t have the pedigree for a palace like this. But what the hell, it was still a nice-looking piece. He’d take it. Give the guy a break, already. At least he liked art.
He peeked around the corner into a huge living room. The walls and carpet were white, as were two leather sofas and a handful of plush chairs. Obviously no kids or pets. Any vertical surface that wasn’t a window sported a mirror or a piece of art. Modern track lighting twinkled everywhere. A real power room. Tom expected to find Ray Liotta leaning against the wall and knocking back a shot of Proximo, ready to spit nails or punch him in the face.
Superdoc himself was a little less threatening. He had Liotta’s salt and pepper brushback, but otherwise looked like your average rich surgeon. Rimless glasses on a smooth, well-scrubbed fifty-year-old face. No smoking jacket or cravat, thank God, but designer jeans and a black T-shirt shrink-wrapped onto his slim torso. And excellent white teeth behind the smile and extended hand.
“Tim, I’m Richard Fleet. So nice to finally meet you. Glori’s been telling me stories all week about you two. She’s been so excited you were coming.”
Tom stuck out his hand and Richard wrestled it around a bit like he wanted to pull Tom’s arm out of its socket. Probably trying to exert dominance. He was strong for a skinny guy. Probably got up at three in the morning every day to work out before surgery. In his other hand he held a wine glass with a super long stem and an asymmetrical bowl. Maybe it was for some exotic drink like absinthe or Dom Perignon.
Gloria was beaming, one arm around her husband’s waist, the other squeezing Kirby. Kirby and Tom wore their traditional travelling togs—T-shirts and jeans, like Richard—but they looked rumpled and ripe, not fresh off the pages of GQ. Moments later they were seated around a contemporary glass table. The leather felt brand new and expensive under his hands, soft and supple. It even smelled new. Maybe he had a can of that new-car-smell auto dealers use on their trade-ins. Sprayed around the joint when he anticipated guests. A bottle and three more odd glasses like Richard’s appeared.
“You guys have to try this Beaujolais Nouveau,” said Richard, starting to pour. “There’s this little friary in France we stumbled across a couple years ago whose mission, believe it or not, is winemaking. For every new vintage they create new bottle and glass designs.” He held up his glass for them to inspect. “I get a case sent over every vintage. It probably won’t win any awards, but it’s always a fun little wine. Plus I get a collection of unique glasses.”
“The wine keeps the monastery going,” said Gloria. “But the hilarious thing is that the whole order is under a vow of abstinence—they’re not allowed to drink their own wine!”
“How do they do it if they can’t taste their own stuff?” asked Tom.
“It’s religion,” said Richard. “There’s a way to get around anything, Canon says they have to turn down the first two invitations to drink, but on the third, they’re required to accept.”
Everybody burst out laughing. “You aren’t shitting us on this, are you?” asked Kirby.
“No, no,” said Gloria. “It’s absolutely true. You can even Google it!”
Richard poured and the others sipped. To Tom it was just another wine, but what did he know? He glanced around at the art on the walls. Impressive. No names or styles he recognized, but that didn’t mean anything. Some nice-looking pieces. Like the pottery, a little gaudy for him. Well chosen for the room, though—large, contemporary, bright. Dr. Rich had good taste, damn it. Or his decorator did.
His eye fell on an eight inch cube on another table. Something clicked—that was the real deal. What was that guy’s name? “That’s a Berrocal!” he blurted.
Richard beamed. “You know Berrocal?”
“Only from the art journals. That’s as close as I ever got to one.”
“I paid twelve grand for it. It comes all apart—it’s a puzzle. And all the pieces are eating utensils. There’s four place settings of silver in that.” He grabbed it from the other table and started pulling it apart.
Twelve grand. A thousand bucks a fork. That would cover a new used car. Or a kitchen remodel. Or whatever life-changing project Kirby came up with after the big weekend with Dr. and Mrs. Surgeon.
“Do you guys really use that for eating?” asked Kirby.
“Only for special guests,” said Gloria. “It’s all hand wash.”
“It’s a pretty dramatic effect, though,” said Richard. “We sit down to eat and the Barrocal’s a centerpiece. I pick it up and fold out the knives and forks and everybody’s amazed.”
Maybe he had a Picasso stuck away in some back bedroom he could cut up for place mats. Richard poured another round of the wine, which was beginning to taste better.
Gloria jumped up. “Kirby, you gotta see the greenhouse. You won’t believe it! Richard, Tom likes art—show him your collection. C’mon, Kirb.” The girls got up and disappeared down the hall. Richard pulled a remote from somewhere and suddenly classical music floated around them.
“So you’re an art lover, Tim?”
“Tom. I guess you could say so. I was an art major in school before I got into design. I don’t collect, though. Two rug rats eat up all our disposable income.”
“This will be a real pleasure for me, then.” Richard stood and gestured around the room at the art on the walls. “Most of the jerks I entertain wouldn’t know a Rauschenberg from an iceberg.”
He picked up one of the bottles and his wine glass and walked over to the biggest canvas in the room, a six by ten foot slash of red with silver and gold rectangles dropped around randomly. Too generic for Tom’s taste, but it dominated the room. Two to one he’d picked it up in Florida, where they catered to nouveau riche buyers with fat wallets and big walls.
“Janko,” said Richard. “Darien Janko. He’s got a studio in Key West. We got it on our honeymoon. You wouldn’t believe how much it cost just to ship it up.”
“Pretty dramatic,” said Tom.
“You got that right. At night you can see it all the way out to the street.” He led Tom to the next piece, a bright oil with heavy impasto. “This guy’s from Costa Rico, Guillermo Porras. He’s got an international reputation, you might have heard of him. Cost a bundle and a half!”
“I’ve seen his work before. A museum somewhere, I think.” Now that was impressive.
Richard’s phone chimed and he pulled it out and studied the number. “Excuse me, I have to take this. Won’t be a minute.” He finished the wine in his glass and walked out into the hall.
Tom studied the painting. This was more to his liking—abstracted but figural, with lots of texture and color. Except the impasto didn’t look quite right. He looked at it from the left, then the right. He put his nose to the painting and ran his fingers lightly over the thick paint. It wasn’t paint at all! It was clear acrylic layered in thick strokes with a palette knife to imitate the texture of oil paint. He’d seen this before. This piece wasn’t a painting, it was a color reproduction on canvas printed from a computer. A realistic looking fake!
Of course, maybe it wasn’t a fake. Richard could have bought it knowing it was a reproduction. But that would mean he was lying about it. Probably he’d just been screwed and he didn’t know it. Jesus Christ! Were any of the other pieces fake? What kind of collector was he, anyway?
Tom wandered around the room resisting the impulse to inspect the other paintings. The art critic inside him was beating at the door, demanding to call Richard out for this flagrant transgression, but he remembered his assignment: don’t make waves.
Richard was into a heated conversation in the hall and Tom heard the word emergency a couple times. That was the serious downside of being a doc. Your time wasn’t really your own. It looked like it would just be three of them tonight. That was okay by him, With Richard gone, Tom would have an easier time keeping his trap shut.
On a table near the door he came across a modern glass napkin holder filled not with napkins but with money. Bills. He looked closer. Hundred dollar bills! Maybe fifty of them. Five thousand bucks, just sitting there. For what, tipping the pizza delivery boy? Truly, the very rich were different from you and me.
“Sorry to keep you, Tim. Where were we?” Richard came walking in from the hallway.
“Tom. You going to have to leave?”
Richard looked surprised. “No, why?”
“I thought that might be an emergency call.”
He ran his hand through the steely brushback. “Jesus. They think everything’s an emergency. She probably put away a plateful of hot wings and now she’s upset because her throat hurts. Most of my patients are inner city—they don’t pay a lot of attention to instructions.”
“Why from the inner city?”
“There’s a lot of inner city in Milwaukee, and the hospital’s right in the middle of it. The majority of them come in through the ER. By that time it’s usually so bad we have to cut. Mostly tonsil jobs. That’s not all we do, but it’s our bread and butter.”
Inner city? Medicaid paid for this mansion? “So you don’t have to go see the patient?”
“That’s what junior partners are for. They need the billable hours, anyway.”
Gloria and Kirby came back rolling a long cart with bicycle wheels. “Jesus, Richard, don’t start talking shop! They’re guests, not state board inspectors. These poor guys have been driving all day and haven’t had dinner yet.”
No chips and dip for the Fleets. There were mushroom puffs, baked brie, shrimp cocktail, caviar and crème tartlets, flatbreads with fava beans and cucumbers, something red rolled in bacon, a handful of other dishes he couldn’t guess at. And a couple new bottles of wine. Dark reds with black labels in French or Spanish, something he couldn’t read. Must be the good stuff this time.
“Holy Toledo!” said Tom. “You been cooking all day?”
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” said Gloria, giggling. A stray lock of her long hair kept falling into her face. Maybe she’d gotten a head start on the wine. “Most of it’s catered. And the leftovers will be a couple days’ meals for us.”
“You should see the desserts out there!” said Kirby.
They started shoveling dainties on fancy silver plates with fancy silver tongs. Richard poured the last of the Beaujolais and popped the corks on the new bottles. Tom picked up one of the bacon rolls with a toothpick and laid it on his tongue. Salmon—sockeye, judging by the color. Dry and flaky and smoked. The smoky flavors and crunchy bacon texture were perfectly matched. Delicious.
Tom and Kirby suddenly remembered they were hungry.
“Where’s your office, Richard?” asked Kirby, between dainties.
“University of Wisconsin Medical Center—a couple miles west of the lake. It’s the biggest hospital outside Madison. One of the top fifty in the country.”
“You like surgery? You enjoy what you do?”
Richard had finished his Beaujolais and started pouring the new bottles. “Do I like it? That was never really a consideration. You go where the money is. When I started out I had my eye on radiology. That was the hot field. Radiologists were making a mint and everybody wanted in. Problem was, everybody got in. Suddenly every system had too many Goddam radiologists. So I researched salaries and demand and decided the future was in ENT.”
Tom raised his eyebrows.
“Ear, nose and throat. Doesn’t sound very glamorous, does it? No big articles in the med journals about ENT breakthroughs. No ENT superheroes giving interviews in the Times. Not like heart or cancer docs. But ENTs are in short supply right now, so that’s where the money is. I get new job offers every month.” He got up and wandered around, stopping behind the sofa where Gloria was sitting.
“Still, that must be pretty interesting,” said Kirby.
Richard shrugged. “Not the point. It pays the bills. When you live like this, there are a lot of bills. Especially with two alimony payments and a little sweetie who goes off the rails in Chicago every once in a while.” He grinned and reached down with his free hand, grabbing Gloria playfully around the neck and shaking her. He bent down and kissed her on the top of her head. Gloria looked straight ahead, her expression frozen on her face. Richard picked up the nearest bottle and walked around the table, topping all their glasses.
“It’s convenient, though,” said Gloria. “When we need some extra cash, like for a vacation or something, Richard can bring in a whole family for tonsillectomies.”
Tom and Kirby exchanged glances. Richard sipped his wine and looked smug.
Gloria jumped up. “Let me get this stuff cleared. Anybody want coffee?” She began collecting plates and glasses and piling them on the cart.
“Excuse me a minute,” said Richard. “I think I’ll check in on that patient. Be right back.” He pulled out his phone and disappeared into the hall.
“I think I’ll need some,” said Tom. “All that wine’s getting to me. And we have to get to the hotel and unpack yet.”
“And get up perky tomorrow morning,” said Kirby. “Nine o’clock is the cheerleaders’ reunion breakfast!”
Gloria grinned and pushed the big rolling cart out the door.
Tom leaned over and whispered to Kirby. “Did you see that stack of bills on the table?”
Kirby whispered back. “And I saw another one in the dining room.”
“So what’s that all about, you think?”
“Gloria said it’s for display. Like the art.”
Tom blinked a couple times. “Display?”
“Richard says people are more impressed by a stack of Franklins than a piece of painted canvas on the wall.”
“Oh, yeah? That’s… inventive.” It didn’t sound much like an art lover, though.
Richard returned, smiling, and threw himself into one of the big white chairs.
“Everything okay?” asked Tom.
“Junior partners are wonderful things to have at your disposal.”
Gloria returned with two more bottles of wine and slid onto the sofa with Kirby.
“So what about you?’ asked Richard. “What do you do, Tim?”
“I’m a graphic designer. Ads, logos, stuff like that.”
“You get a degree and all for that?”
“You don’t absolutely have to have one, but it’s kind of hard to get your foot in the door without it. Back in the day they hired people off the street all the time, but not anymore.”
“He works for this great little creative boutique,” said Kirby. “Not very big, but they win lots of awards. Tom loves his job.”
“Any money in it?” asked Richard.
That was kind of a bold question from somebody you just met. But Richard was definitely not your average Joe. Tom waved a hand around. “Not this kind of money, for sure. The big agencies do okay. The owners do, at least.”
“You ever think about that? Having your own business?”
Tom leaned back into the leather sofa. It was like being folded into a cloud. Maybe the leather pillows were stuffed with goose down. “Massage the clients, feed the staff, kick the sales guys in the ass, keep an eye on the books. Not my thing. I just want to create.” Tom did love it. Every night he walked out the door with a great feeling of creative gratification. And every morning he couldn’t wait to get to the office and do it again. He finished his wine and emptied the last of the bottle into his glass. It was definitely the good stuff. Nutty, with an aftertaste of berries.
Richard popped the cork on one of the new bottles and poured another splash for everybody, spilling some on the tabletop. “You hire grunts for that. Pay minimum, take yours off the top. Unless you want to be a grunt yourself all your life.”
“Richard, don’t be nasty!” said Gloria.
“It’s true. If you don’t run the show, you’re a grunt,” said Richard. “One of the little people. If you want it, you have to take it.” He swallowed the last of his wine and refilled his glass. “Who was the rich bitch who said that? Owned all those hotels. Said only the little people pay taxes.”
“Leona Helmsley,” said Kirby. “Went to prison for tax evasion, I think.”
“She was right, though,” said Richard.
“Besides,” said Gloria, “Tom’s not a grunt, he’s an artist.”
“Artist? Who cares? That’s not the point. Name me an artist who got rich while he was still alive. Picasso? Warhol? Not even close. The trick is getting rich while you’re still kicking. Otherwise, why bother?”
What the fuck? Why was this dude collecting art if he had no respect for the people that made it? Was it all just a sham, like the Porras? He opened his mouth but snapped it shut again before he lit any fires he couldn’t put out. Richard may be a phony, but Tom was still determined to be the silent partner tonight. Besides, there was the Berrocal—that was certainly no fake. Tom finished his glass again. Where the hell was the coffee? The wine was good, but he needed to wind back down. They had the hotel thing to do yet. Gloria’s waistband, a silky blue and green scarf, had come loose and her dark eyeliner was running a little bit. Kirby slid over next to her on the sofa and the two whispered at each other. Kirby looked concerned.
“Shit, we need more wine,” said Gloria.
“We’ve already got two full bottles, Gloria,” said Tom.
She got up and disappeared into the kitchen. Kirby followed her out.
Richard checked his phone and refilled his glass again. He sure put away the booze. This guy was a surgeon? Tom would hate to be going under his knife tomorrow morning. Maybe tonsils were easy pickings, but even so—somebody with a hangover fumbling around inside his throat with a sharp knife? No thanks.
“So who are your clients?” asked Richard. “What kind of stuff you do for them?”
“Most of it’s B2B—business to business. Companies selling materials or components to manufacturers and other businesses. Good clients, good margins. Our biggest client, though, is a car dealership. The owner’s a real pain in the ass—wants to be the star of all his own TV spots. Totally kills any creative ideas. He’s a cheap bastard, too, so there’s really no profit. But the media budget’s enormous and that gives us a great cash flow.”
“You ever feel guilty about that?” asked Richard.
“What do you mean, feel guilty? About what?”
“About marketing. Advertising. Trying to get people to buy things like cars they don’t need. That’s what all you guys do, isn’t it? Push people’s buttons? Create desire? Use psychological tricks like subinimal messaging. Subliminal.”
What was this? Was Richard just getting stewed and running off at the mouth, or was he trying to pick a fight? Obviously he’d picked up a few buzzwords, probably from the internet. Subliminal messaging had gone out with the sixties. But why? Maybe he didn’t like Gloria having friends of her own. He should just stay cool.
“It’s just capitalism, Richard” said Tom. “That’s how it works. Everybody promoting his own product gives the consumer a bigger selection. And the competition keeps the prices down. Everybody wins.”
“Everybody but the poor shmuck who just signed his life away for a new vehicle he can’t afford. Car gets repo’d and he loses his down payment, too.”
“So now you’re concerned about the grunts?”
“Richard, why are you doing this?” Gloria stood in the doorway, her hands pressed to her face. “These are my friends. Stop being an ass!” Kirby stood behind her with a cart full of coffee and desserts, eyes wide and eyebrows creeping up toward her hairline.
“Glori, you don’t know shit about advertising,” said Richard.
Tom stood up, his voice rising. “Look. if you knew squat about advertising yourself, you’d know ads can’t do that. If they could, I’d be making more money than you do. About the most the ad can do is talk a consumer into a Ford instead of a Honda. Or a pickup instead of an SUV.”
He felt Kirby’s hand on his arm. “Tom…” she muttered.
Kirby had a pot of coffee and was pouring it into four mugs on the cart. Just in time. Tom sat back down and grabbed the nearest mug. What the hell had brought this on? Something he said? Or did? Richard tumbled more wine into his glass, ignoring the coffee. Gloria had found her way to the sofa. She was a mess, her makeup smudged and her hair falling randomly across her face. Had she been crying?
Richard wouldn’t let up. “Like those sideshow barkers on CVS, or whatever it is. The shopping channel. Little old ladies sitting up all night in their living rooms buying thousands of dollars of junk they’ll never use.”
Gloria jumped up. “Richard, stop it!” Now the tears had started for real.
“That’s not the same thing,” said Tom. “We don’t do that.”
Gloria bolted for the kitchen again, Kirby on her heels.
“Same principal,” said Richard. “Just a different scale.”
“You do the same thing,” said Tom. “Nobody spends more on advertising than the medical industry.”
“But we only give our patients what they really need! We don’t try to trick them into something they can’t afford.”
“Since when does a whole family all need tonsillectomies at the same time? That’s not about what they need, it’s about what you need!”
Tom could see the fire erupt behind Richard’s eyes. He leapt up.
“Maybe they don’t need it now, but they will in a year or two years or twenty years. They’re all gonna need it sooner or later. Better now than end up infected in the ER! Besides, these poor schmucks don’t pay a penny for the surgery.”
Now Tom stood, gesturing with his coffee cup across the table at Richard. “No, I’m the one that pays! That Medicaid payment comes out of my tax dollar. Don’t lecture me on business ethics! I don’t gas people and chop ‘em up and send the bill to Uncle Sam when I need a couple bucks.”
Then Kirby was in front of Tom, pushing him back around the sofa and toward the hall. She turned back to Richard. “Richard, I’m sorry, it’s really late and we need to unpack yet tonight. Thanks for the spread, that was a life saver. We’ll see you guys tomorrow sometime at the reunion. Tell Gloria thanks for us.” She grabbed Tom by the arm and pulled him at a fast walk him down the hall.
“Wait, wait, my cup!” Tom stopped and drained the last of his coffee and set the cup on the pedestal holding the pot he’d examined earlier—the cheap molded job. He picked up the pot and turned it upside down.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Kirby.
“Just sending a message.”
Kirby pulled him out the door and out onto the terrace. “You know Gloria’s going to pay for that, don’t you?”
Tom stopped and turned to her. “You’re kidding.”
“No.” She pulled out a tissue and blew her nose.
“Jesus Christ. I just reacted. The wine…”
“I know,” she said. She took his arm again and pulled him down the steps to the car.
“Is she alright?” asked Tom.
“Zonked out on the bed. You okay to drive?”
He unlocked the doors and she got in. “I’ll watch it,” he said.
Tom nosed the Chevy down Boardwalk toward Mayfair Road. At this hour the traffic was light and he could take his time. Orange-tinted streetlights passed slowly overhead and the moon filled the sky ahead of them, hanging low over the lake. He was more than a little buzzed—maybe he’d sleep in while Kirby partied with the cheerleading crew in the morning. In what, five hours? Six? Shit. Maybe he’d sleep in his skivvies, unpack tomorrow. Kirby was being uncharacteristically quiet. He hoped tonight wouldn’t spoil her weekend.
“I didn’t get dessert. Those raspberry things—"
Kirby reached over and slugged him on the shoulder. “You’re awful!”
He glanced over at her and caught her staring back at him, a smile on her face. Kirby reached over and took his free right hand in hers, squeezing it tight. She didn’t let go until they reached the motel.