Howard Apswith’s summer suit with the esquire jacket had been stained over the winter by a ceiling leak, but he told his wife he would wear it just the same because it came from Garfinckel’s. Stain or no stain, its light color made for a picture as Howard walked up over a knoll with his large protruding stomach and girls on either side. “Look what I found!”
It was the kind of excruciating moment that made parents drink. Little Girl’s mother sobbed and smothered the small child in the fabric ornaments of her dress, while Big Girl’s mother spoke for all. “I hope you girls have a good story for this.”
Middle Girl was about to speak passionately in defense when Big Girl cut her off. “We were hiding.”
“An awful thing to do at a wedding—just awful.” The elders organized themselves in a receiving line to rain down their disapproval on the two penitent older children. “What selfish little girls!” “You are guests here—this is not your own private playground!” “Your mothers were worried sick about you!” And then, finally, the ultimate blow: “No wedding cake for you two!”
Katherine, in tears, had sequestered herself in the room with the mannequin. She’d instructed a cousin to give Linus the message that she already looked horrible and the day was ruined. Unfazed, her betrothed stood patiently outside the bedroom door in the long hallway. He tapped his bent finger and whispered, “Let’s just proceed, shall we, Katherine?”
The ceremony was strangely solemn, the ensuing buffet meal tedious despite the strikingly beautiful arbor canopies, the crisp blue sky, the sheer and utter perfection of the day and place. Linus, however, found himself liking the whole affair better that way. In fact, he felt almost delighted on account of these hours being not as trying as he’d anticipated. By the time the couple’s hands jointly cut into the four-tiered cake, the bride was doing much better. Her husband held her hand through photographs before the staff cut slice after slice to place on wedding napkins.
Linus saw the three girls, the pariahs, sitting together according to size on the long white bench on the large white porch where rambling rose bushes had rambled lustily for at least thirty years. He was a patient man and, he thought, a forgiving one. While drafting his article over the past two months, his mind had repeatedly turned itself back—back, primarily, to the June of the war’s end, when he sat on the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow. At every stop the train was invaded by women and children—barefoot but wearing clean headscarves—selling curdled milk, dark-cooked eggs, pickled carrots, onions and potatoes, radishes and berries. And pancakes. It was absurd in a country where, just yesterday, millions had been perishing from starvation. As the patient and forgiving man, Linus smiled and purchased the berries and the pancakes. And then it was back through the burned-over forests, with birch, ash, and alder the scrub second-growth. As darkness set, the train crossed the Volga, near Yaroslavl, the water black but shiny like a mirror. He’d never felt as empty as he did on that bridge and that train.
Yes, he was a patient man, especially when attempting to allay the fears of a President who urgently wanted to understand what lie at the core of Russian hostility. The patient man was certain that the Soviets posed little military threat to the West. He recommended adopting a policy whereby the United States did not directly confront the angry Russians but frustrated them by opposing communism wherever they threatened to strike beyond their borders. Over the long term, constant frustration would cause the Soviet system to weaken and collapse.
And so the patient and forgiving Linus Steinbrenner balanced two slices of cake in his right hand and took a third in his left to walk over with a peace offering. Middle Girl grabbed for a slice first. Her absent mother, he was told, was an attractive drunk who created a little party around herself wherever she went. Then it was Little Girl, who, from the look of her face, had already enjoyed her cake but grabbed this fresh one with no fear of censure from her hovering mother. Big Girl, however, shook her head like Stalin at Yalta.
“Are you sure?” asked Linus, looking at the mother, who was presently unsure if she should feel pride at her daughter’s sudden dignity or shame at the girl’s determination to be even more of a brat.
The girl bit her lower lip with a sequestered fury. Her teeth seemed to be pulling the lip inside, to prevent seepage of something—words of protest perhaps? How proud we are over nothing, thought Linus. He smiled at the girls while in the distance his bride mouthed the words “Linus” and “have a word.” He continued to smile even at her, this woman he’d just married, but still he didn’t budge. His wife had to waltz past behind him like some beaming hostess in a Frigidaire advertisement, slowing to whisper into his ear, “You’ve made a fool of me by doing that.”
Little Girl, her cheeks dotted with white cream, looked at Linus, palms up, turning them: “All gone.”
He stood with the remaining piece of cake on his palm. Visible on the protruding skirt of paper was embossed gold lettering: Katherine and Linus, June 14, 1947. Seven years to the day, he thought, of the arrival of the first prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He ate the cake in two large and confident bites. He realized there was handwriting on the napkin just as he crumpled it in his palm. When he pulled apart the wad he could only stare.
Who would play this awful trick on his wedding day? Who would do such a horrid thing? Everyone on Linus’s side knew about Anna and the automat napkin—it had become enshrined within Steinbrenner lore. He had on this singular day managed to banish his hatreds, his physical disgust at America’s stinking throbbing masses—their lack of shame at permitting their bodies to grow into fat, the ways they attempted to mask their poverty with harsh, dime-store colognes and gelatinous ointments combed into their hair, the women straining to be perceived as “elegant” in horrendously tailored frocks like a child’s fairy costume. Their obsequiousness to anyone with cash in hand. Their distrust of anyone who knew something they did not. Their compulsion to belittle “book-learning” as an affectation existing outside the realm of legitimate commerce. Their perpetual need of a trivial enticement—a bright shiny toy—to act as decent citizens.
He had been willing to overlook all of this for a day, and yet here was the sly payback.
He couldn’t say why the habit persisted over the course of a decade. He had indulged just three days before the wedding, in the booth of a Maryland Howard Johnson’s while waiting for a turkey club sandwich. He turned the rectangular napkin on its back lengthwise and used the Red Rocket pen given to him by one of the girls in Marshall’s office. In his misery that sweltering day, he looked out at the half-empty parking lot stoically taking the worst of the noonday sun. He thought of Keats: “Diligent indolence is the secret of the happy life.”
The morning after his second wedding, Linus Steinbrenner made a vow to refrain from writing poems on napkins—a vow he upheld for another nine years. What eventually strained the terms of this pact was a chance encounter outside the Chicago Hilton in 1956. He was with his sister Helen, waiting for a taxi.
“That’s her!” Helen whispered. “That’s the girl I knew from school—the one you were supposed to meet at the automat in 1936.”
He could not make his eyes focus on the identified target. “That’s twenty years ago,” he whispered. “You can’t tell.”
“Just watch me.”
Vivienne Peale (née McCown) was still beautiful twenty years on, though more matronly around the shoulders, like Maureen O’Hara, her glowing bosom erupting over the dropped-shoulder yolk of her dress. Her sad, wet eyes were lined in brown liquid; her brows curved as precisely as a piece of musical scoring. It was summer and hot, but she smoked wearing cotton gloves, transferring the lit cigarette from the two fingers of one hand to those of the other. She sat with crossed legs atop two vertical blue suitcases. She had tied her green chiffon scarf around the handle of one of the suitcases. When approached by Helen, the woman’s sad wet eyes flickered with ironic mirth, like jumper cables would do to a near-dead battery. She explained that she was waiting for her husband—and that she wished she had a drink.
Linus’s family had been in Chicago for a wedding. Later that day he sat alone at a bar down the street from the Hilton’s Normandie pastiche and other primitive Midwestern grandiosities. The bar was dark and overly frost-cooled; he was waiting for his spouse and relatives to fetch him.
Why did he do it? Probably it was the spectacle of the former Vivienne McCown—the intimation of a life he might have lived. The woman’s throbbing beauty seemed to taunt him for his choices, demand a reckoning as he drifted across the milestones of bourgeois midlife. Alone in the bar, he couldn’t resist the square cocktail napkin embossed on one side with a magenta foil stork. He stared at the bird and asked the barman for a pen. He had to scribble on the napkin to summon the ink, which turned out to be red. Seeing the words signaled the resumption of his drift, but now the direction would change, the new course unalterable.
A message on a napkin
is oh so very nice
I’ll bet you’ve never had one
so I write it to you twice:
A message on a napkin
is oh so very nice.