Excerpt from ‘River Under the Road’ by Scott Spencer


The Farewell Brunch

Sunday, August 29, 1976

You’re Invited!

Come for a real New York Brunch at our house and say

Adios Au revoir Arrivederci Sayonara

to our son —

and to Hell with RSVP.

Just Be There.

Thaddeus suspected his parents were disappointed he wasn’t going further with his education, but he was wrong. Sam and Libby never for a moment thought Thaddeus was going to get a graduate degree, though law school would not have been out of the question. But the life of a scholar? Professor Kaufman? It was not how they saw him. He was charming, he loved fun, pleasure, jokes; he was not the boy of their dreams. In truth, love him as they did, had he not been flesh of their flesh, he was not someone with whom they would ordinarily have been close. Not to mention his mushy liberal politics, his unscientific, unsocialist belief that out of the goodness of their hearts people might share and share alike, live and let live. He was a moderate. A prospector forever on the lookout for common ground. Weeks ago, during the bicentennial patriotic orgy, people his age were insisting that America acknowledge its deficiencies — stop the war, end poverty, own up to epic political corruption — while Thaddeus and his girlfriend spent most of the day in bed, rising only to try their hands at baking a red white and blue layer cake that succeeded solely in bespattering the immaculate Kaufman kitchen.

“Here’s what I believe,” he had the nerve to tell them, when he had overheard them debating various theories of history. Maybe he was drunk, or high — they suspected he indulged in his generation’s rather contemptible distractions. He was draped over the brown sofa. His girlfriend had slipped past them, down the main hallway and into his bedroom. “The whole purpose of history or progress or whatever we want to call it is to create conditions in which people can love each other, and enjoy life. Pleasure is the most we can ever hope for. It’s what makes us human. And love, too. Love is the ultimate pleasure. It’s the milk and honey of the emotions!”

“Oh please,” Libby had said. “Milk and honey my foot. You sound like an idiot.”

“It’s what I believe,” he said, with a lazy grin that struck Libby as distinctly postcoital.

Maybe he was a bit of a fool. They worried over that possibility. As a child there were nights when he literally danced before them, his little feet scraping at the floor, his arms making blurry circles before him. His model was Sammy Davis Jr. Their model might have been any president carved in stone. Sammy Plays Mount Rushmore! They would sit on the sofa, letting him sing and dance, their shoulders back, their chins held high, like Resistance fighters about to be executed. They always clapped too soon, before the finale, which would find him on one knee, his arms outspread. And the jokes! Where did he find them? Did he make them up? Shaggy dogs, guys walking into bars, the talking baby. When he was eleven, Libby found a book hidden under his mattress — “The Toastmaster’s Guide to Laffs” — and, her heart racing, her mouth a rictus of revulsion, she carried it to the trash can and disposed of it as if it were the vilest sort of pornography.

And now New York, thus the good-bye brunch they were getting ready to host, in their long, dark apartment, with its preponderance of hallways, its heavy furniture, sagging bookshelves, and murky purple-and-blue Persian carpets.

In a few days, Thaddeus would be gone and they would be alone together. It was not a prospect they dreaded. They would be returned to their original state, living one-on-one, just the two of them. They imagined noontime lovemaking, a luxurious privacy, never ever to be interrupted. Sam talked about learning French. Libby planned to buy a piano.

Not that he would be unmissed. He was their son! And he was good at the shop, a pleasant-looking kid, nice build, square shoulders, black hair, blue eyes, an open face. He had a ruddy, Russian look to him, according to Sam; to Libby he looked like the suitor in a silent movie. But he liked the customers and the customers manifestly enjoyed his genuine friendliness, his interest in them, his warmth, his desire to make them laugh. He remembered so many of their names, a feat that was amazing and a little weird, like double-jointedness. He gazed admiringly at the books the customers chose before bagging them. He flirted with the loveless. He joshed with the infirm. He listened with what seemed like rapt attention to the garrulous. He made calls to other shops if someone couldn’t find what they needed at Four Freedoms. He made room on the obligatory bulletin board for the flyers and index cards that people wanted to post, announcing upcoming madrigal concerts or dining room sets for sale. He played with their dogs, slipped pennies or nickels to their children. “That boy of yours could charm the birds out of the trees,” a professor said to Libby one day in late July. By then she had heard so much commentary about her son’s gregarious, people-pleasing, hail-fellow-well-met personality that her own basically contentious nature sprang to the fore and while she was writing up his sales receipt — Carl Sandburg’s two-volume biography of Lincoln — she somehow added an extra dollar to the total.

“I like my birds in the trees,” she replied, handing him his change.

Excerpted from “River Under the Road” by Scott Spencer. Copyright © 2017 by Scott Spencer. Published by Ecco, a division of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

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