Artichokes

Con Chapman


          Tim was the dean who Marci worked for, and Vicki was his wife. Marci loved them both; she considered them the model of what she wanted to be when she grew up, although she didn’t put it that way. I did, which didn’t endear me to Marci.
          They had an apartment on Beacon Street with a view of the river to the north and a southern exposure, so you got light in the winter and moving water in the summer. All we had at first was the apartment that had the bedroom in the basement and the living room that looked south onto the Common; then the next year, when we were both making more money we got a bigger place that faced north. That was where we were living when Tim and Vicki invited us.
          It was a Friday night after work when we went over. Marci was nervous, I could tell; she put on a scarf even though it was still warm out, late summer. She spent a lot of time looking at herself in the hall mirror. “Aren’t you going to be hot in that?” I asked—we had four or five blocks to walk.
          “I think it looks good,” she answered as she fussed with it. “Tim and Vicki have a very easy sense of style,” she said. I guess we—or at least I—didn’t.
          It was noisy on Beacon as we walked down to their place, a lot of traffic and the wind blowing off the river rustled the leaves in the trees. It made our conversation seem hurried and breathless because we talked so loud. “So they’re married, right?” I asked.
          “I don’t suppose I really know,” Marci said with a careless air. As if to suggest that I was hung up on that sort of thing.
          “Is he the main dean, or one of the teen deans?”
          She shot me a look. “He’s an assistant dean, but he’ll probably be the head dean once Paul retires,” she said, referring to the older guy who never seemed to be there when I’d go to pick her up.
          We found their place and rang the bell and they buzzed us in. It was three flights up, so Vicki had plenty of time to watch us coming up the stairs. Marci was out of breath by the time we reached their landing; I would have been, except I paced myself and kept breathing the whole time.
          “So nice to meet you,” Vicki said as she extended a hand to me. I was glad she didn’t try to kiss me first time. I could never figure that out, how Marci’s crowd wanted to play kissy face when they barely knew you. I suppose it had something to do with the culture, they all seemed to want to be known for being open and free. I didn’t see the point; for a crowd so into being natural, it was rather artificial.
          “Come in,” she said and we walked down the narrow hallway to the kitchen, where Tim was opening a bottle of white wine. He had a little Van Dyke beard and a smile that was either wry or smug, I couldn’t tell which.
          We went through the pleasantries all around. Tim asked me if I wanted a glass of wine and I said I’d rather have a beer if he had any, which drew another look from Marci. Just trying to be honest and not affected, I thought to myself; wasn’t that the way I was supposed to be?
          We went into the living room and Tim brought in a tray with artichokes for each of us on little plates, along with a bowl of melted butter. He presented them to us with ceremony, and of course Marci had to ooh and ah with delight and admiration that he was such a wiz in the kitchen.
          “Do you like artichokes?” Vicki asked me and I couldn’t be too enthusiastic. Marci used to make a dip out of them that was awful, but which she thought was sophisticated, just the sort of thing she should be serving to the people she wanted to be friends with. I hesitated a moment, teetering between disgust and diplomacy, and finally said “They’re okay.”
          That wasn’t good enough for Marci, who gave me a little cough that said we wouldn’t be having sex tonight. That was fine with me, I figured I wouldn’t be in the mood when we were done anyway.
          Everybody peeled off a leaf so I did the same, then they dipped them in the butter, then they turned the leaves upside down and pulled them down against their lower jaws. I tried to follow them, but I didn’t know what I was doing and took a bite off the end of the thing.
          “No, you just scrape it against your teeth, the good part comes off very easily,” Vicki said. She was just trying to be nice, but she was sort of rubbing it in. I tried another and it was pretty easy once she’d explained it, although not that obvious. “Seems like a lot of work for not much food,” I said, trying to be jovial, I guess. Marci was looking at me the whole time like she’d just discovered I had leprosy, and was apologizing silently to Tim and Vicki for having brought me into their home.
          We sat and talked for awhile—I noticed the others gave up on the outer leaves after a while and just went for the hearts. Marci asked Tim about some paper he was writing, how education schools weren’t attracting the brightest students. He said it was a real problem but it seemed to me it didn’t exactly reflect well on him; he’s the dean saying the students who come to his program aren’t that bright. I thought he wasn’t too bright to have missed the irony.
          Then Vicki started to focus on Marci–where had she gone to college, what she wanted to do, how she’d ended up applying for the job in Tim’s office. I don’t think she was probing into whether Marci wanted to have an affair with Tim–the two of them seemed genuinely happy with each other–but Vicki was older than us; she had lines on her face and was heavier than Marci, so maybe there was some jealousy there.
          Then it was time for the men to joust; Tim asked me what I did and I said I was a typesetter on the night shift at a financial printer, trying to save up the money for law school. He kinda snorted at that—it seemed instinctual, not personal; the contempt of the academic for somebody who might possibly have an interest in making some money. Or maybe it was just that I worked with my fingers and not my brain, I don’t know. I looked around the place and figured there was some trust fund money somewhere in the background, they couldn’t pull off a Beacon Street condo with a water view on his salary.
          Everybody had another glass of wine while I nursed my beer. The hors d’oeuvres part of the night was pretty much over, the tray now piled high with artichoke leaves. I started to get up to take the mess into the kitchen, trying to be polite, but Vicki stopped me and said “Here, let me take that, you sit and talk to Tim.”
          “No, I’ve got to check on the frittata,” he said and started to get up from his lotus position on the floor. Once he was on his feet we heard a crash and I thought maybe Vicki had dropped something in the kitchen, but we realized it was noise from the street coming in the open window.
          “What was that?” Marci asked.
          “Sounds like a car accident,” Tim said without much concern. “We get a lot of them. People try to beat the light on Beacon, but you have cars crossing to get to Storrow Drive.”
          We heard a woman cry. Vicki was in the kitchen, but Tim just kept going.
          “Don’t you think we should go check on them?” Marci asked.
          “The people on the first floor always do,” Tim said. “Come—let us eat."