by Ronald Damien Malfi

At the restaurant, Jack Pagewater suddenly felt the urge to vomit. Lois was too busy fawning over the Capshaws to notice the sudden change of expression on his face, and the Capshaws themselves-well, their eyes hadn’t lifted from their mimosas all evening.

“Excuse me.” He stood and bumped Lois’ chair. She waved him past. He hurried down the hallway to the restroom, where he leaned his head against the tiled wall, staring into the mouth of the toilet, breathing in great, wheezing gasps.

Behind him, two young men entered and straddled a pair of urinals. He could hear them talking through the stall.

“You run the marathon?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Marines?”

“Twisted some tendons in my left calf. You know how the-”

“Isn’t it like the-”

“Twisted. And I had to stop at mid-mark.”

“What do they do for that?”

“Massage.”

“You can wear a brace?”

“Couple of weeks.”

Five minutes later, Jack was back at the table. He hadn’t thrown up, but his stomach had settled somewhat.

“Jack,” said Mark Capshaw, “we were afraid you’d left us.” Mark was forty and completely gray. His hands were slender and well manicured. He wore French cuff shirts and 1940s swing-era tailored suit jackets with butterfly lapels. White teeth, almost clear.

Lois patted Jack’s hand. “Too much to drink, dear?”

“No,” Jack said.

“We’ve got another round yet,” Mark explained.

“Several rounds,” Mark’s wife, Miranda, insisted. “Jack, don’t go all rubbery on us now, darling.” She patted his other hand.

“He’s been running lately,” explained Jack’s wife, as if apologizing for her husband’s abrupt departure from the table. “Mornings, evenings…trying to reach-”

“Miss the youthful body, do you, Jackie?” Mark said. He thumped his own broad chest with a fist. “Miss your jeunesse?”

“Where do you find the time, dear?” Miranda asked. She gripped Jack’s hand firmly, as if to offer condolence. She was an attractive woman in her late forties who did her best to present herself at half that age. Her fingers were cluttered with a wedge of sparkling rings-all real-and the perfume she wore was nearly cloying.

“Really, I haven’t even been running all that much lately,” he admitted.

“Ne pas etre si modeste,” Mark said.

The waiter returned, carrying a bottle of vin rouge and four snifters of brandy. Anxious to get at the drinks, Mark plucked the snifters from the waiter’s tray without haste.

“Wine?” the waiter asked them. “Ladies?”

“Cigars,” Mark said. He looked at Jack. “What’s your preference?”

“Jack doesn’t smoke cigars,” Lois answered, wrinkling her nose. “Filthy, filthy things. That’s a dirty habit, Mark Capshaw. Miranda-what’s the matter with you, letting that fit man smoke such horrid things?”

“I am my own man,” Mark said. Jack thought his eyes were beginning to look red and sloppy. “Jack, son, what flavor? Come on, now-a man shouldn’t smoke alone.”

“I don’t know flavors.”

“Don’t do it, Jack,” Lois harped.

“Robustos!” cried Mark. “Two thick Robustos, son!”

Lois frowned playfully.

“Did you tell Jack about your hunting trip, sweetheart?” Miranda prodded her husband.

“Yes,” Lois said, “do tell it, Mark.”

Mark finished his brandy. “I own a Winchester Model 70 Custom African Express with walnut stock, ebony pistol grip, and adjustable front and rear sights. What’s your make, Jack-o?”

“I don’t own a gun.”

“You don’t hunt?”

“I have twice before…”

“Well, you should take him, Mark,” said his wife. “Jack would love it. You would love it, Jack.”

“Back-ended a two-hundred-pound buck last week. I was perched in a tree, maybe twenty yards from the ground, and I’d been sitting there for-oh, I’d say forty-five minutes. Quiet. I felt like an American Indian.”

The women laughed.

“Waiting is the hardest part,” Mark explained. “It takes a lot of patience and skill to wait in silence, and to keep alert. And then this beautiful animal strides out onto the fairway-magnificent, with a rack the size of…well, the size of this table, no doubt.”

“No doubt,” Miranda agreed.

“You wait for the precise moment. Too soon and you might scare it off; too late and you’re out of the picture. You watch it, and try to become part of it. You breathe when it breathes. You blink when it blinks. Swear to God, if you had a tail, you’d both be flitting them in synchronization. Do you know what it’s like to bring down such a beast, Jack?”

“I’ve only been duck hunting.”

“Oh, now!” Mark bellowed. “Ducks? What’s a duck? That’s insignificant. I mean, when that great buck went down, I could feel it, as if it were a part of me, you know? So strong. You have to kill it to appreciate such a thing, Jackie. I mean that, son. Superb.”

“All right,” Jack said.

“The first thing you do,” Mark continued, “is heft the antlers. You just feel them, the way you’d feel a breast, and you can surmise the entire weight of the creature just by the thickness of its headgear. Experienced hunters can, anyway. Then you wait for it to stop breathing-you can see its chest heave. Again, experienced hunters know how to snap the neck if you don’t want to wait it out. But sometimes waiting it out is part of the reward. You’ve ended this thing, Jack.”

“I’ve never even eaten venison,” Jack said.

“Eat it? No-you mount it. I mean, you can have it stripped, gutted, and cleaned if you want, but I never eat it.”

“No?”

“I don’t enjoy it.”

“Red meat doesn’t agree with him,” Miranda said.

“You see, it’s a sense of pride, Jack. Every man should kill a buck once in his lifetime. You’re almost not a man unless you mount that head, Jack. You need to heft those antlers and let that creature know why man is the superior being. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” Jack said.

“Take him hunting sometime,” Miranda insisted.

“Heft them,” Mark said. He finished his wife’s brandy. “Just feeling it-it’s like a surge of power.”

“Power-power-power,” Lois grumbled playfully.

“What happens if the buck gets away?” Jack asked.

“What do you mean?”

“If you shoot and miss.”

Mark laughed. “You can’t miss, Jack. I mean, maybe with ducks you can miss, but who bothers with ducks?”

When the cigars came, Mark lit up like a child at Christmas and proffered one to Jack. “No, no,” Mark insisted as Jack stared at the smoke. “You’ve got to clip the end.”

“Bite it off like they do in the movies, Jack,” Miranda said, winking at him.

“Don’t bite it,” Mark said. He produced a silver cutter from the inside pocket of his jacket and clipped the tip of his cigar. “Snip. See that? Can’t bite it. How can you be such a damn fool, Miranda?”

“Oh, Mark…”

“Really, she’s such a damn fool sometimes.”

Lois and Miranda giggled.

When Jack and Lois first met the Capshaws two months ago, the Pagewaters were in awe of the couple. They were clever and mysterious and utterly refreshing. They used words like “hence” and “moreover” and “therefore,” and occasionally used the word “summer” as a verb. Now, two months later, Jack had fallen out of awe. Lois continued to be intrigued by the couple, but Jack now only acknowledged the Capshaws with the mild curiosity of a weary movie-goer. Sixty-two days since their introduction, the Capshaws were no more interesting that a pair of glossy insects.

Mark clipped Jack’s cigar, lit it while he puffed, then handed it across the table to Jack.

“Puff,” Mark said. “Don’t inhale. You don’t inhale cigars.”

Jack puffed. The cigar tasted like cinnamon and wet leaves and tar.

“Give it here, then,” Lois said, grabbing it from Jack’s mouth and popping it in her own. She sucked the life from it, then coughed. “Really,” she sputtered, “you men are so primitive!” She thrust the stogie back at her husband.

Just when the check came, Jack began to feel nauseous again. He rose, plodded off to the bathroom, and hung himself over the toilet again. The cigar hadn’t agreed with him. Also, he was light-headed and dizzy from all the drinking they had been doing.

Mark entered the bathroom, his voice booming some operatic song. He adjusted his silk tie in the spotted bathroom mirror.

“Jack,” he said, “do you have any idea how much Donn Mason Mutual cleared for me last year?”

Jack shook his head.

“Up thirty-five percent. That’s more than ten percent better than the New York Life return, did you know that? Thirty-five. I cleared about fifty grand in eleven months. That’s what thirty-five percent will do for you, Jackie. Why do you waste your time floundering with real estate, anyway?”

Mark Capshaw was drunk. With the exception of the house he and Lois lived in, Jack had never touched real estate in his life.

“I’ll tell you one thing, though,” Mark said. “If I could do it all again-pharmaceuticals. That’s the way to go. Pharmaceutique, Jack. Generic medicines. Your Tylenol, Advil, Whatever-the-Hell. You botch one tiny micro-atom or whatever you call it, modify the prescription, drop below the high profile drugs by eighty percent-Christ, Jack, you’d have the whole market. And that’s what it’s all about: marketing. Can’t you see that? And here you are, puckering around in real estate. It really is quite pitiable.”

Mark wet his hands beneath the sink, then ran his fingers through his silver hair. He examined the closeness of his shave in the mirror as Jack became suddenly ill and vomited into the toilet.

“No embarrassment,” Mark said. “An old Army buddy of mine threw up the first time he smoked a cigar.” He produced a joint from his coat. “Here’s the real treasure. You want to smoke before sex, Jack?”

Jack shook his head.

“It’ll make you feel better, son.”

“No,” Jack managed. The letters of the wall graffiti blurred and double before his eyes. “I don’t think I could stomach it right now.”

“What’s the matter, anyhow?”

“I haven’t been feeling well lately.”

“Have you said anything to Lois?”

“No, but she knows.”

“You should speak with her, if it’s serious.”

“She knows. And I don’t know if it’s serious.”

“You should tell Lois,” Mark said. He lit the joint and took one long drag. “She’s looking very nice tonight, by the way. She’s lost weight?”

“Lois?” Jack said. His head was still spinning. He flushed the bowl so he wouldn’t have to look at what he’d just brought up.

“Her thighs have gotten less and less…” Mark paused, searching for the perfect word, “messy. She’s a lovely woman.”

“Thank you.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Fifteen years,” Jack said. He righted himself against the wall, took three deep breaths, and pushed his way over to the sink beside Mark. The stink of the marijuana made his stomach growl.

“She’s just so lovely.” Mark’s reflection winked at Jack. “We brought the van,” the reflection said, “because I know how you and Miranda groove to it. It’s right out in the parking lot.”

“That was thoughtful.”

“Will Lois and I be going to your home?”

“Ask her,” Jack said.

“Just the same to me,” Mark muttered, and stepped out of the restroom.

Twenty minutes later, Jack stood pale and naked in the back of the Capshaw’s van, with Mark’s wife sitting cross-legged and shirtless on the floor in front of him. Unlike Jack’s wife, Miranda was all nipple and no breast.

She stood, gathered his neck up in her arms, and pushed herself against him. Her body stank of weed and sweat and baby powder. Jack was certain he stank of vomit and cigar smoke.

Miranda kissed him hard on the mouth.

“I want you to do the behind-me stuff tonight,” she said.

“All right.”

“Are you cold?”

“No.”

“You feel cold.”

“I’m not.”

“Okay, then.”

“Okay.”

“Start with my nipples. I like when you start with my nipples.”

“All right,” Jack said, and lowered Mark’s wife to the floor.