This was in downtown Chicago, a cold November night, 1992, at an almost-pretty-nice Italian place. I was seventeen, three inches taller than my father and thirty pounds lighter. My mother was living alone at the house back in Framingham, and my father had moved to Back Bay, where he rented “an apartment with a very young woman,” as my mother put it, as if the place had come equipped with her. He was a dentist, and I was the freshman at the University of Chicago whom he bragged about to his patients as they lay prone and gaping in his humming, pleather chair.
There was an open bottle of wine between us, two long-stemmed glasses, two closed menus. The waiter had disappeared into the kitchen. I had on a new band-collared shirt that my father had bought me earlier in the day, along with the new brown bucks on my feet. He’d bought himself a turquoise silk shirt that he’d already invited two perfect strangers to rub between their fingers—“Go ahead, touch it. Silk.” With each swallow of wine, the puff of chest-hair up by his throat dipped and rose, and each time he crossed and uncrossed his legs he kicked my shins. I wondered if he knew it.
At the table next to us, to my left and diagonal to me, was a heavy-set man in a purple suit. He had an enormous face, with a tiny nose, a tiny mouth, and dark, narrow-set eyes. His voice was loud, he had a hard, stubby laugh, and he pointed in the air with billy-club fingers as he talked. His companion was silent, dressed in black, with an excess of cuff dangling from his thin white wrists. As he listened to the man in purple, the man in black twirled an unlit cigarette through his fingers, sending it pirouetting out over his knuckles then trapping it with his thumb. No one else was in the restaurant. I told myself: they’re mobsters. Real Chicago mobsters.
My father and I had just come from Marshall Field’s. Shopping bags were clustered at our feet. An odd choice for a father-son outing, but he wanted me to look sharp, for the two of us to walk around Chicago looking sharp. It was nighttime now and we’d done all our walking. Leaning in over the table, he beckoned for me to do the same. “Goombahs,” he whispered, and flicked his head to the side, smiling at me expectantly. I didn’t say anything back.
In the silence, my father crossed his legs once more and caught me in the knee with the toe of his loafer. This was when the man in the purple suit turned in his seat and looked at me, his eyes on the side of my head. I felt this as it happened, the emptying out of the air between us. “You look so serious,” he said. “Why so serious?”
My father laughed. He smiled as one might for a comedian at a nightclub—the part of the act where they mix it up with the crowd.