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Three hours before the end of the year, Dennis Hill found himself in a horseshoe shaped booth in the dining room of the Admiral Semmes Hotel with a trio of nurses and a pulmonologist named Erwin Schnell. The previous morning, the last working day before the long weekend, he’d been delivering his pitch—Dennis sold antibiotics for a leading pharmaceuticals concern—when Dr. Schnell interrupted and began insisting that Dennis join his dinner party. A friend had backed out, he said and he needed a sixth to make the numbers wash. Dennis accepted, not only to avoid the loneliness of a solitary New Year’s Eve but also because he sensed a perfect opportunity to sweeten his business relationship with Dr. Schnell.
“He walked right into the office and announced he had pneumonia,” Polly Bellville was saying. She was pretty in an ordinary way, blond, blue-eyed, her skin a shade too dark for the season. “The guy was nuts. He wouldn’t believe he wasn’t sick. He freaked when Dr. Schnell refused to write him a prescription.”
They were seated, in this order, from left to right: Regina Lopez, Dr. Schnell, Debbie Wu, Dennis, and Polly Bellville. And they were still expecting the final member of the group—a certain Mr. Fountain—who was more than an hour late.
The dining room was all white linen and overabundant silverware, but it was loud enough and crowded enough to keep the atmosphere convivial and bright.
Chandeliers winked and chattered on the ceiling. There was a swing band at the north end of the room, music floating over the crowd and reaching Dennis in a fizz of cymbals and horns and random snippets of other people’s conversation. There was lobster tail and champagne in silver buckets, there was the smell of cut lime and gingery perfume, there was the tipsy sound of women’s voices and the candlelight on their skin. Despite the pleasant circumstances, Dennis was feeling melancholy and distracted.
Debbie Wu said, “Maybe he was right. Did you think about that? The body knows what it knows.” Debbie was half-Taiwanese, half-Alabaman and, while her features were distinctly Asian, she spoke in a Southern accent so thick, Dennis was startled every time he heard her voice.
“It’s an information problem.” This from Regina Lopez, who was combing her fingernails through Dr. Schnell’s hair. She was wearing a red sleeveless jumpsuit and red pumps. Her nail polish and lipstick matched the shade precisely. “All these internet sites and TV commercials. People know just enough to hurt themselves.”
“I want to hear what Dennis thinks,” said Dr. Schnell. “Dennis hasn’t opened his mouth in half an hour.”
Dennis started at the sound of his name. He couldn’t recall where exactly they were in the discussion. He stalled, sipped champagne. He wanted make sure his response was noncommittal.
“I think that’s open to debate,” he said.
Dr. Schnell shot Regina a stunned look. “What kind of an answer is that?” He turned to Polly Bellville. “That’s not an answer.” He was a big man, early fifties. He wore his hair brushed back in a pompadour. There was a sort of ruined handsomeness about him, Dennis thought, as if he’d had a brief career in Hollywood before losing everything to alcoholism and divorce. To Debbie Wu, he said, “That tells me exactly nothing.” Finally, he leveled a glare at Dennis, held him with it for a moment. Dennis dreaded making sales calls on Dr. Schnell. The man was brusque and intimidating and Dennis always got the feeling that Dr. Schnell didn’t like him very much. “This woman—” Dr. Schnell jabbed his thumb in Regina’s direction, “—indicts your profession and you don’t even have an opinion on the matter?”
“Now, now,” Regina said. “Nobody’s indicting anybody here.”
She covered Dr. Schnell’s hand with hers but he jerked away, polished off his champagne and refilled his glass from a bottle in a stand beside the table. He said, “Who do you think is running all those commercials, sweetheart? It’s not the FDA, I’ll tell you that.”
“I’m sure I have an opinion,” Dennis said. “I’m super-opinionated. Could you repeat the question?”
Debbie laughed out loud and patted Dennis’s thigh.
“He’s not mad at you,” she said. “He’s mad at Mr. Fountain.”
“Plus, he’s stewed,” Regina said.
All three women stared at Dr. Schnell. He bugged his eyes and held his breath for a few seconds.
Then he said, “All right, you’re right. I’m sorry, Dennis. This thing with Fountain has got me all worked up. You invite a man to dinner, you offer him lobster and music and champagne at your expense—” He trailed off and shook his head.
“He’s not coming,” Polly said.
Dr. Schnell forked up a wedge of lobster, dribbled butter. “Have I ever let you down? Have I ever once, in all the time you’ve known me, been any kind of disappointment?”
In a small voice, Polly said, “I guess not.”
“Damn right,” said Dr. Schnell.
Regina used her napkin to dab his chin.
“It’s sad,” Debbie whispered in Dennis’s ear.
“What’s sad?” Dennis whispered back.
“It looks like he’s a no show.”
“Is she with Mr. Fountain?”
“He didn’t tell you?” Debbie said. “But Dr. Schnell said you had this huge thing for Asian girls.”
There was a sudden, wild fluttering in Dennis’s stomach and he pressed a hand over his abdomen to tamp it down.
“He said that?”
“You don’t like Asian girls?”
“It’s not that,” Dennis said. “I do, I mean—listen, would you excuse me for a minute?”
Dr. Schnell slapped his hand on the table, rattling silverware. He shouted, “No more whispering. I won’t have whispering at my table.”
“I have to use the restroom,” Dennis said.
According to promotional literature, the Admiral Semmes, built in 1884, was named for the notorious and dashing Confederate sea captain, Raphael, who foiled Union blockades for the duration of the war. It was a grand, old-fashioned place, swarming now with New Year’s revelers in varying degrees of evening attire, mostly suits and ties and cocktail dresses. The crowd bled out into the lobby—bejeweled old dragon ladies smoking cigarettes around a sand-filled brass tureen, restless children clattering and sliding on the marble floors. Dennis hesitated at a bank of courtesy phones, changed his mind after a moment and continued on his way. In the bathroom, he waited for a stall behind a dapper old timer wearing bedroom slippers with a tuxedo. The man noticed Dennis eyeing his feet and said, “Time is hard on old bones.”
When a stall opened up, Dennis ducked in and threw the latch. He sat on the lip of the toilet without dropping his pants, squared his feet on the floor and pressed his hands flat against the walls as if to keep the stall from shrinking in on him. After a minute, he marched out of the bathroom and over to the bank of phones like he’d been planning to do so all along. He dialed a number he knew by heart.
“Oh,” she said.
He hadn’t heard her voice in fifty-seven days.
“I know who it is.”
Dennis said, “Guess where I am?”
“I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“I’m at the Admiral Semmes,” he said, forging ahead. “They do it up right for New Year’s Eve.”
“It’s loud,” she said. “What do you want?”
“Nothing, really, I’ve just been thinking about you. I wondered if you had plans tonight, that’s all.”
“I’m watching Dick Clark,” she said.
“That sounds nice.”
“This is a bad idea,” she said. “I’m hanging up.”
Then she did hang up, and Dennis listened to the dial tone for a minute, as if it was an acceptable substitute for her voice, before placing the receiver in its cradle.
“Knowing that you’re tired or that you’re hungry,” she said to Debbie, “is not even in the same ballpark as diagnosing pneumonia.”
“I know when my period is coming,” Debbie said.
Regina slid over to make room for Dennis. To Debbie, she said, “How did you ever graduate from nursing school?”
“I trust the patient to know himself,” Debbie said.
Dr. Schnell said, “Did you find an opinion in the john, Dennis? You were in there long enough.”
Dennis said, “What are we talking about?”
Polly leaned forward, as if to speak, but Dr. Schnell clapped a hand over her mouth.
“Don’t anybody answer that,” he said. “I’ve had enough of this discussion and I don’t really care what Dennis thinks. I was only being polite.” He hunched over his forearms, took a breath and sighed it out. “I want three minutes of silence,” he said, studying his watch. “All right—ready—now.”
The women lowered their heads as if in prayer and, after a moment, Dennis did the same. He scanned the table from the tops of his eyes. He could see the part on Debbie’s scalp, the deep and freckled recess of Polly’s cleavage. To his surprise, he felt a hand on his neck, fingers creeping up into his hair. He cut his eyes to Regina and she smiled.
“He’s such a grouch,” she said, tipping her head toward Dr. Schnell.
Dr. Schnell threw his hands up and shouted, “Holy bucket of crap. I ask you to keep your mouth shut for three minutes after all I’ve done. How hard is that? That’s not unreasonable.” He showed Dennis his watch. “Ninety seconds,” he said. “You tell me.”
Regina rolled her eyes and brushed the hair at Dennis’s temple. “He gets like this when things don’t work out the way he planned,” she said.
“In the first place,” said Dr. Schnell. “I haven’t gotten like anything. I’m having a great time. This is quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life. In the second place, things will work out fine whether it’s the way I planned them or not. And in the third place, I think it’s you, not me, who’s mad because we made a little change.”
Regina’s fingers hesitated a moment, then resumed their progression over Dennis’s skull.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
Dennis patted his pockets, like he was looking for a pack of cigarettes or a pair of glasses, neither of which he carried, announced in a loud voice that he had left “something” in the restroom and bolted from the table. This time, the men’s room was deserted. He moved to the sink and held his hands under a stream of cool water. As he was preparing to splash his face and neck, the old man in bedroom slippers ambled through the door, winked at Dennis and popped into a stall.
“You’re too young to be in here again so soon,” he said. “A man my age—I’ve got a good excuse.”
Dennis pressed his right hand flat against the top of his head and squinted at his reflection. Then, as if he had arrived at some grave and final decision, he tore his eyes away and hurried out to the bank of phones.
“It’s me,” he said.
“I’m hanging up.”
“Wait,” he said. “Wait, please. It’s the strangest thing. Just hear me out. Please, Francine. I didn’t know who else to call.”
There was a stretch of silence on the line.
“All right,” she said.
“Well,” he said. “It’s—”
“Are you drunk?”
“Maybe a little.”
Francine sighed. “All right,” she said.
He said, “Here’s the—”
“Listen,” she said, “I’m sorry, Dennis, but after this, I don’t want you to call me anymore.”
“I understand,” he said.
“All right,” she said.
He plugged his free ear with his index finger.
“Are you still watching Dick Clark?”
“Is that why you called?”
“I guess not,” he said.
“Why don’t you tell me why you called.”
He cleared his throat.
“The thing is I think I’ve gotten mixed up in something here. I’m with these people, this doctor from work and these three nurses—”
“That’s right,” he said. “The nurses are women.”
Francine said, “I’m hanging up.”
“Wait a minute,” Dennis said, but she had already broken the connection.
Just then, the old man emerged from the men’s room. As he shuffled into earshot, Dennis said, “I miss you, too.” The man smiled a kind and canny smile and Dennis had the sense that he knew there was no one on the line.
In the dining room, liveried waiters were busy clearing dishes. Patrons were roaming table to table. A woman said, “This is a celebration. How could you possibly order sea bass?” Half a dozen couples had drifted up to the dance floor. They were floating in listless circles to a song Dennis recognized but couldn’t name. Back at the booth, Polly Bellville was whispering to Dr. Schnell, and he nodded intently, as if they were hashing out matters of real importance. Regina patted the seat cushion beside her. Debbie was nowhere to be found.
“Everything OK?” Dennis said.
“Tell me something about yourself,” Regina said. “I know what you do for a living but that’s it; that’s the extent of my research. Tell me something intimate. Tell me a secret.”
He scooted into the booth. “Well.” He paused, considered. “I just got off the phone with a woman I know.”
Regina cocked her head.
“Her name is Francine,” he said. “I made a mess of it with her.”
“Is she Asian?” Regina said.
He had expected her to ask him to explain himself, wanted her to ask, so it took a moment to adjust.
“Not particularly,” he said.
“Is it true you don’t like Asian girls?”
Dennis wiped the corners of his mouth. He thought Regina might be suppressing a smile. He glanced over at Dr. Schnell, but he was still in murmured conference with Polly.
“I like Asian girls,” he said.
“What do you like best?”
“They have pretty skin,” he said.
Almost before the words were out of his mouth, Regina dissolved into laughter, and Dennis heard a snort from somewhere out of sight. There was a thump beneath the table, causing champagne to slosh over the lip of Dennis’s glass, followed by an exclamation in a familiar Southern drawl. Someone pinched his calf and Dennis yelped. Then Debbie crawled out from under the table, her skirt climbing the backs of her thighs. “I hit my head,” she said, prompting another burst of laughter from Regina.
“We thought we could fool you,” Polly said.
Dr. Schnell said, “You should see your face.”
“He looks like you,” she said, pointing at the television.
Dennis studied the screen—dark hair, somewhere in his middle thirties, rakish, determined.
“He doesn’t look like me.”
“He does a little,” she said. “Around the mouth.”
“It’s his eyes,” Regina said. “I can see it in his eyes.”
Dennis glanced over his shoulder. Regina bobbed her head.
The suite was arrayed in stuffy, salon-style antiques. There was a bathroom near the door, a bedroom on either side of the central parlor. The television was tucked into an armoire and they watched the screen in silence as the picture shifted to Ursula Andress in a hat.
“Ladies—and gentleman,” said Dr. Schnell, “if I could have your attention.” He led the young man from room service over to where they were sitting. “I’d like you to meet Todd. He’ll be our Mr. Fountain.”
The young man was broad-shouldered and crewcut, his scalp pink beneath the stubble of his blond hair. He was pushing a room service cart laden with bottles of champagne.
“My name’s Toby,” he said. “This is wild.”
Debbie wiggled her toes under Dennis’s thigh. “You’re our Nawab Sharma. He’s a research guy.” She tapped her two front teeth.
Dr. Schnell gave her an irritated look before finishing his introduction. “Todd is nineteen years old. He’s a student with interests in restaurant management and physical education. He pays his tuition working here at the hotel.”
“Plus an ROTC scholarship,” Toby said.
“That’s nice,” Regina said. “I know Polly will be glad to meet you. Polly’s in the bedroom.”
“Wild,” he said.
Dr. Schnell said, “Actually, Regina, I was thinking maybe you would keep our new friend company tonight.”
Polly Bellville poked her head into the room. “Could somebody please bring me the tweezers?” she said and shut the door again.
Dr. Schnell gazed in her direction for a long moment before returning his attention to Regina. Regina glared. She made a claw with her hand and raked her fingernails over Toby’s crewcut.
“You have interesting hair,” she said.
He said, “ROTC. They make us do it.”
“Let me ask you something, Todd,” Debbie said. “Do you think Dennis looks like George Peppard?”
“It’s Toby,” he said. “Who’s Dennis? Who’s George Peppard?”
Dennis picked up the remote, aimed, hesitated. “Anybody mind if I change the channel? I thought we might look at Dick Clark a minute.”
Debbie gave his ear a playful flick. “I’m watching this,” she said.
“You Dennis?” Toby said, “You a doctor, too?”
“I sell pharmaceuticals,” Dennis said.
“Wild,” Toby said.
Dr. Schnell clapped Toby on the back and said, “Dennis is with the fourth largest drug outfit in the world.” He took a satisfied look around the parlor, then about-faced and disappeared into the bedroom.
For a minute, the room was quiet. Toby watched Regina. Regina watched the bedroom door. Debbie watched TV. Dennis thought about Francine. Finally, Regina suggested that Toby open the champagne, and he sprang into action, popping corks and filling glasses. Regina sat on the couch and Debbie moved into Dennis’s lap. Toby handed everyone a glass.
“You’re blocking the TV,” Debbie said.
Toby sidestepped three feet to his left.
“Someone should make a toast,” Regina said. “Todd, why don’t you make a New Year’s toast?”
“It’s Toby,” he said. “I don’t know a toast.”
“Just say Happy New Year,” Debbie said.
“Happy New Year.”
“Would you excuse me for a second?” Dennis said.
Debbie looked at him. “We’re in the middle of a toast.”
“I won’t be long,” he said.
Debbie sighed and stood and smoothed her skirt over the backs of her legs. Dennis hustled into the bathroom and locked the door. He perched on the toilet, his forearms across his legs. There was a phone mounted on the wall above the vanity. He lifted the handset, dialed the number. When she answered, he said, “Please, Francine, don’t hang up.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” she said.
“Because I said please, I guess.”
“Are you with those people?”
He rubbed his eyes. He tugged his earlobe.
“No,” he said. “I’m home.”
“Oh,” she said.
“I’m watching Dick Clark,” he said.
“Oh,” she said.
“Are you still watching Dick Clark?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Dick Clark never gets old,” he said.
There was a knock at the door and Dennis flinched. He smothered the mouthpiece with his hand. “What’s the hold up?” Debbie said. He didn’t answer. He closed his eyes and held his breath like if he kept perfectly still and quiet his lie would be transformed into the truth.
Francine said, “Is someone there?”
“That’s just the TV,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. Then she said it again, “Oh,” as if something had become clear to her. A few seconds passed before the line went dead, but Dennis couldn’t think of anything to say.
For a long time, he stared at the floor between his feet. He was perspiring on his forehead and across his upper lip. Debbie drummed her fingers on the door. “Just a minute,” Dennis said. His hands were shaking and his heart was pounding and he felt as sick and reckless as someone with nothing left to lose. He hung up and toweled his face. He tried to hear the blood running in his veins. He was waiting for a flash of instinct or inspiration, waiting for his body to give him a sign.
Lacking that, he stepped out of the bathroom, brushed past Debbie, marched across the parlor and kicked open the door to the adjacent bedroom. Polly was propped against the headboard on a nest of pillows, wearing only strapless heels. Dr. Schnell was standing at the foot of the bed in his shirt and tie and black knee socks, facing Polly, his pants draped over his right arm. Dennis wavered an instant, then hurled himself onto Dr. Schnell’s back and, not sure what to do once he was mounted, hung on while Dr. Schnell staggered and reared and bellowed startled curses. Polly squealed and bounced on the mattress. As soon as he regained his balance, Dr. Schnell flexed his knees and arched his back and executed some sort of judo maneuver—even in mid-air Dennis was washed with admiration—leaving Dennis sprawled on the carpet. He pushed himself up, threw a sad, half-hearted roundhouse, missed badly, and Dr. Schnell chopped him in the throat. Dennis gasped and clutched his neck and reeled into the parlor. Regina dropped her glass at the sight of him.
Toby said, “You guys are wild.”
Dr. Schnell followed Dennis into the room.
“Are you finished?” he shouted. “I don’t know what this is, but I hope you’re finished.”
Dennis spun and kicked, but Dr. Schnell stepped neatly to one side and Dennis’s momentum took his feet out from under him. He landed hard on his back, then rolled onto all fours and crawled, wheezing, toward the door.
“You’re finished.” Dr. Schnell was working himself into a rant. “You’re nobody, mister. I’ve got the top heart and lung practice in this city. I’ve got a two and a half million dollar house, my friend. I’ve got all the split-tail I can handle. You got nothing,” he said. “I bet you’re finished now.”
Debbie held the door open and Dennis clambered into the hall. He half-expected one of the girls to follow him out and make sure he was all right but he heard the bolt slide home behind him.
A few minutes later, when he had caught his breath and regained a measure of his composure, Dennis hoisted himself upright and boarded the elevator, headed for the lobby. Two floors down, the doors opened for the old man in bedroom slippers and he pressed the button for the mezzanine. He seemed pleased to see Dennis. Every time Dennis glanced in his direction, the old man winked and grinned.
“May I ask you a question?” Dennis said.
“Be my guest.”
“Do you think you’re a good man?”
The old man squinted and pursed his lips, adjusted his bowtie. After some consideration, he said, “I’d like to think so, yes.” More squinting, more pursing. “And you?” he said. “What about you?”
The lobby was mostly quiet when Dennis arrived. A pair of clerks was knocking around behind the desk. Three boys in bathing suits jogged by on their way to the pool, bare feet slapping on the marble. Dennis could hear the band doing “Auld Lang Syne” in the dining room. He pictured a knot of couples kissing and swaying under a cloudburst of confetti and balloons.
Outside, a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk and in the street, eyes heavenward, laughter coalescing in the cold. Fireworks popped and sparkled high above them. Across the way, a preacher in a gold track suit shouted, “Are you saved, dear sinners? The end of the world is here.” A debutante was dancing on the hood of a cab. A police cruiser crept up the middle of the road, slowed by the throng, siren turning silently on the roof. Dennis stood next to a man holding a little girl on his shoulders. The girl was pointing at the sky and he followed her finger with his gaze, watched the night spangle and bloom. He tipped his chin up, closed his eyes, let his mouth hang open as if to catch the embers on his tongue. He imagined Francine in her apartment, faint light from the television playing on her skin and it struck him that the pursuit of love wasn’t much more than a long series of missed opportunities and misunderstandings and mistakes, though he wasn’t particularly startled by the notion. He thought most everybody probably felt the way he did at one time or another and that feeling this way didn’t make it true. All around him, the crowd pressed and jostled. In a few hours, they would leave this place and drift back into their lives. This year was already last year, next year this and so it went forever. Time would pass and they would, all of them, go on seeking love until they found it. Dennis had the sense that he could feel his own life lurching forward—now and now and now—in perfect rhythm with his heart.