ALL HE ATE BEFORE GRACE
“Vanities of vanities,” says the preacher, “all is Vanity.”
I. Lewis and Alice
My brother always told me that it all depends on how you look at it. His advice, he told me later, applied to everything; an over-priced leather jacket, an expensive meal, a back-up television, life—girls. It all depends on how you look at it. Or her in this instance. This instance being this story.
My brother, whose name is Lewis and who is a minor four years my senior, prided himself not in his work or wisdom—his work being law and his wisdom being the fear of the Lord—but in his possessions, undoubtedly thinking too highly of his taste and opinion.
That being said, his house and all his earthly assets were fine. His house was a country dwelling built some hundred years before he bought it and its furnishings just the way I would have them if I were to have a home and a family to occupy it; large wooden things, dark and traditional with fancy linens and fine china. He owned a car that was black, sleek and shiny which he drove to the office wearing one of his various suits; usually of grey twill that he paired with a shirt sometimes of small plaid, and a skinny coloured tie with matching gingham pocket square.
Even his appearance, to match his clothing, was fine. He was a tall man built like my father with a good jaw and a healthy hairline; a crown of light brown hair kept short and parted to one side. But it was not his hair or suit or house he ranked the highest, but a wife named Alice.
Alice was a farmer’s daughter who seemed to mysteriously have everything of an aristocratic upbringing. To me, she was ideal; a honey-haired, brown-eyed woman; a pretty thing so much so her height and weight were of no consequence in the matter. She was agreeable and caring; never weak, never over-bearing. She was coated in grace and she liked me a lot. She often made Lewis look better than he really did and when asked on the subject my brother always replied that her attraction to him was a result of exactly that reason.
Lewis was a bachelor through most of his years at Windsor College where our father and our father’s father studied architecture. He was in his last year of studying law, mind you in the middle of his class (something he manages to leave out when telling the story) when an English major crossed his path and she, innocently thinking nothing of their eyes meeting, never engaged in a pursuit, not realizing he already was. He followed her around campus in the fall, waited outside her classes in the spring, learning a great many things about her. Upon graduating and starting low in the ranks at Doyle and Doyle, Lewis never forgot about his college girl and that’s when he finally employed her in his life. They weren’t inseparable as almost are romantic couples are; they dated only three years, engaged for one and wed the next. My brother, nearing thirty and his wife, four years younger, had been married two and a half years when he entered the gates of Windsor again.
It was determined before either one of us were born that we’d attend Windsor, Mum’s hopes for us becoming just like our father, and we agreed that our time behind desks and in the lecture seats were going to be ours alone. And my years were—until my brother Lewis became guest lecturer Lewis Wahlton in the law department.
Luckily enough for me I wasn’t in law. I was enlisted at Windsor to study Philosophy and had been for three years, passing my twenty-first birthday six months before my sophomore year. I got along quietly, rooming in a red brick Victorian townhouse with my cousin, and managing to pay tuition with the money earned working as a nightly secretary for Loney and Wills, undoubtedly because of word sent by my brother in the law world. It was October when my satisfyingly dry life at Windsor ended.
I had just barely past my mid-term examination in Topics in Contemporary European Philosophy and I was sitting in that very class, listening to Professor Mayseck discuss phenomenology and its approach to classical philosophy problems (Today: the distinction between “knowledge by acquaintance” and “knowledge by description”) when I realized I should have read the recommended texts.
I chewed the end of my pen as I stared at the clock on the wall, high above the teacher’s bald head. I was torn between counting down the minutes and wanting them to drag on and on and on. I knew at precisely 12:46 pm Prof. Mayseck, who was never late and never early, was going to dismiss us, some one hundred students, and I was going to have to run across campus to my housing, drop off my books and run all the way back without working up a sweat.
Alice had invited me to lunch.
The clock struck the time mentioned and I was off. My shoes skidded along sidewalks and I stopped cars at crosswalks, a few of my unconfined papers blowing away in the wind. I climbed steps to the townhouse, fumbled with my keys, my pen still between my lips, and I stomped up the winding staircase inside to my apartment. I tossed my textbooks and my book bag, ignoring my cousin on the sofa, and grabbed my tie from the back of one of the kitchen chairs. I was back on the sidewalk, crossing avenues and slow students on the way, all while pulling the black tie over my neck, watching my fingers fiddle with the silky fabric.
The Den was a dining hall at the college, one I liked because of a sentimental photograph of my father as a student standing by the mantle with his mates and raising a glass.
I raced over the terrace and stopped.
I took in a deep breath, clearing my head and straightening my tie.
Through the French doors, I could see them, sitting at a table on the other side of the hall. I cracked my neck and the doors opened for me as if by magic.
I sat, staring at the mantle in the Den; six feet wide with a mirror overhead, reaching the excessive height of the ceiling. The fire in the hearth was flickering. My brother and my sister-in-law sat across from me in the wide room barely busy with the autumn sunlight catching the crystal on the empty tables. Lewis was reciting a story about when we were boys, one he forgot to tell at Thanksgiving the week before, as he finished his meal when I realized that this reoccurring lunch was going to happen daily for whatever time Lewis was given as lecturer.
“Are you working often?” Lewis picked up his drink and showed off the cuff of his shirt sleeve; navy and red check which he paired with Dad’s skinny black tie and navy pocket square.
I inhaled deeply as I looked from the mantle to his face and let out my breath slowly. “Not enough.”
“Spending your time getting to know any new friends?” Alice asked, hoping; her delicate hand sweeping away her blond hair which had fallen into her eyes. The rest of her hair was pulled back, revealing her earrings, the ones with the grey stones she had imported from Barcelona.
“No,” I admitted. “Studying too much.”
“And how is Dan?” Lewis asked next, leaning back in his seat. “You should invite him to eat with us next time.”
Next time, I knew it. Dan was our cousin and my roommate. He was a good-looking lad with dark hair and a giant smile all the girls swooned over. He wasn’t involved in any extracurricular activities like me so our time together was frequent.
“Is he setting you up on any dates with any of the girls from Mallory?” Lewis teased.
I laughed out loud. “Of course not. All those girls are too young, taken or if they aren’t, there has to be a reason why.”
“Marty,” Alice said, disappointed.
Marty. It only sounded sophisticated when she said it. Martin Theodore Wahlton was the only way my name could sound important.
“There are tons of pretty girls here,” Alice said. “You can’t tell me that you’re not fond of one of them.”
Pretty girls. Sure, there were pretty girls here. There were plenty of pretty girls everywhere. Pretty wasn’t what I was aiming for. I smiled at her politely, avoiding an answer.
“We’ll just have to find you one,” Lewis chimed in, looking around the room as if to pick one right there and then.
“There may have been a lot of beautiful girls here when you were in college and you picked the best of them,” I said, watching Alice grin bashfully at the compliment I paid her, and smiling too. “But it’s like all the girls here are too disinterested in me and I don’t really mind.”
“Well, have you shown any of them encouragement?”
By this time my brother and I were both sitting exactly the same way, something our mother always laughed over. We leaned with one elbow bent on the back of our chairs and the other arm resting on the edge of the tabletop, looking far too unimpressed with one another.
“No, why would I?” I asked. “I don’t know any of them.”
“That’s not the point, Marty. Listen,” Lewis got excited about it, leaning over the table with both arms, destroying the symmetrical image. “Girls like it when boys show up first.”
I truly had no idea what he meant and I sat out of sorts for the rest of the meal until the conversation unfortunately continued outside on the terrace.
It was warmer outside than it should have been, nevertheless leaves on the trees lining the paved walks and gravel footpaths amidst the parks and tennis court were changing and giving the dull limestone buildings a perk.
Alice was back in her cardigan, her heels clicking in between my brother’s long strides. I walked along with them, my hands in my pant pockets like they usually were—something my mother told me was a terrible, terrible habit. I was wearing a pair of chinos, rolled up a bit to reveal the high top of my sneakers, and a blue chambray shirt with my tie looking too much like Lewis’s.
“You can’t tell me you’ve spent three years here and not one of these girls has caught your eye,” Lewis said.
I frowned, watching my feet as I thought about it a while before answering. “Not really,” and I shrugged.
I didn’t know if it was my looks or my personality that didn’t cause a frenzy of girls to giggle or surround me when I was in the presence of any. I didn’t feel that it could be either. I wasn’t as good looking as Lewis or as smart but I was…good enough. I didn’t look like my father, Lewis did. I looked like Mum who had tanned skin and blue eyes. Her hair was darker than mine but it framed our faces similarly, and to my regret I still looked too boyish. Mum said I would always look like a boy and never a man. Sadly, Lewis agreed, probably basking in his manliness entirely.
“I’m going to find you one,” Lewis said as we walked closer to his parked car, that beautiful smart-looking car that I envisioned speeding down the highway in my shiny aviators and loving life finally.
I sighed longingly as Alice laughed at her husband’s declaration. I opened her door for her and she patted me on my shoulder, thanking me for coming. After shutting her up inside the car, her flowing skirt sliding on the leather, I looked to Lewis on the other side of the car. He leaned over the top with his key in his hand.
“Trust me,” he said. “I’ll have you head over heels for some lucky girl by the end of the week.”
“Why are you so intent on it?” I asked, smiling at his ridiculous bet.
He shrugged and opened his door: “I want you to be happy.”
His words struck me kind of funny and I frowned, watching him hop into the driver’s seat, saying, “Tell Danny I said hello,” before shutting the door.
If anyone could find me a girlfriend it would be Lewis, and because I respected him with a little too much esteem, I had no problem letting him.
Returns next Tuesday
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