There was an extra ticket to the firm’s seats for the Celtics game, and the call went around the office for any takers at face value. When no had responded by 4:30, Nelson, who had reserved the game for a client who was in town, began to go door-to-door with Harvey, looking for someone to make up the fourth.
“What does your guy do?” Harvey asked Nelson.
“He owns a chain of movie theatres,” Nelson said.
“Who else is working for him?”
“Just me for now.”
“You know who knows something about that business is Andy.”
“Yeah. He did tax work for American Theatre Group at his old firm. It was in his business plan when we interviewed him.”
“And is he working for them now?”
“You know Andy,” Harvey said. “He just sits in his office, billing away. I doubt that he ever even called the guy up. Far as I know he hasn’t got a nickel’s worth of business out of them in the three years he’s been here.”
“But he knows the stuff?”
Harvey looked at Nelson with eyes that expressed an amused incredulity. “If anybody knows it, Andy knows it,” he said.
“Okay—let’s ask Andy.”
As they walked down the hall to their partner’s office their voices grew louder in anticipation of—and preparation for–a night of male camaraderie at a sports event. In order to bring off a night of client bonding successfully it was essential to elevate their level of bonhomie to a higher pitch than they would employ for just a dinner or drinks. They would take on a harder shell of guys being guys, more boisterous, even a bit vulgar. In this respect Andy Bradford could be an uncomfortable drag on the proceedings. He was scholarly and withdrawn, and almost never joined in after-hours business activity. It wasn’t his style, a point that he made quietly when people would ask him if he wanted to join them for a night out with clients or prospects when he first joined the firm. “Sorry,” he’d say, “I’m up against a deadline” or “I just had something dropped on me,” or some other excuse that would repel further efforts to recruit him. At the same time, his lack of social skills burnished his image as a hard worker who kept busy with the mundane aspects of the practice of law so his partners could indulge in the more adventurous side of the profession.
Nelson stuck his head in Andy’s office, which was crowded with books since he disdained on-line research that younger lawyers had mastered. “I like to see it, touch it, feel it,” he had told the firm librarian when she’d offered to give him personalized training to bring him up to date on the latest resources in his field. “I can flip back and forth with a book, plus I can read the cases right under the statute,” he’d told her.
“Hey Andy!” Nelson said with a bluff tone, as if he and Andy were close.
“You want to go to a Celtics game tonight?”
Andy hesitated, not wanting to seem ungracious. “How much are the tickets?”
“On me,” Nelson said. “It’s coming out of my marketing budget.”
“Who are they playing?”
“What difference does it make?” Harvey interjected cheerfully. “It’s a night away from the tax code.”
“It’s . . . uh . . . Toronto,” Nelson said, looking at the tickets.
“Uh, thanks, but . . .”
“Listen, we’re going with a guy I want you to meet, Ted Dayton. He’s doing a tax-free roll-up of hotel properties. Harvey said you had experience in the area.”
Andy realized that he should have said no in the first place, but it was too late. Both Nelson and Harvey were on the compensation committee. He didn’t want to have it said that he’d refused to help bring in more work from a client.
“I do. It’s a bit rusty, but I did a lot of work at my old firm for American Theatre.”
“Great,” Nelson said, as if Andy’s response was the equivalent of a “yes.” “Call the wife, tell her you’ll be late. We’ll walk over and have dinner in the box. Meet you in the lobby.”
Andy felt a lump rise in his throat. He still wanted to say no, but he suppressed the thought and let out a sigh of frustration as his two partners turned to walk to the elevators. He wished he was the sort of person who would enjoy such an evening, but he knew he was not. He would be tired the next day, unable to focus until long after he had usually begun his most productive work. He would be uncomfortable all night long, hesitant to join in the small talk because he had never had much interest in sports, and wouldn’t know the current news about the teams or the players.
The arena was noisy, bright and loud, an assault on the senses that made Andy squint and shrink from contact even more than usual. They met the client—a red-faced man with a double chin and a booming voice like those affected by Nelson and Harvey for the occasion.
“Nice to meet you,” Dayton said as he gripped Andy’s hand a little too firmly for comfort. “Three lawyers, jeez. You guys aren’t going to send me a bill for tonight, are you?”
Nelson and Harvey laughed heartily, but Andy could only grin nervously.
“We’ll charge your retainer!” Harvey said to the businessman with a wink. “You did get a retainer, didn’t you?” he asked Nelson with a look of mock concern.
“I could never figure that out,” Dayton said. “I’m up to my ass in lawyers, and they all want to charge me before they do any work. When you go to the gas station, I don’t give ‘em any money until they fill up the tank!”
The three laughed loudly again as they stepped onto the elevator that would take them up to their seats, then lowered their voices as others got on. When they reached the floor where the luxury boxes were located, they passed through ranks of liveried waiters and waitresses who each nodded and smiled and said “Welcome” as if they were honored guests and not just harried white-collar types out on a school night.
The box was already half full with accountants who shared it with the law firm, and Nelson waved his arm expansively at the buffet and open bar. “Help yourself,” he said to the three others, but most of all to his client, who took a plate and began to pick through the food with a discriminating eye. He asked the carver for slices of prime rib and ham, then took a few vegetables from a crudité platter in a desultory manner. Once he’d filled his plate, he set it down on a high table and went to the bar to examine the wine options.
Andy moved through the line behind him, keeping his distance in order to avoid having to mingle with him. He wasn’t used to eating and drinking in such a setting, and was at a loss where to put his plate and the bottle of beer he ordered in order to appear sociable. He edged off to the fringes of the accounting firm, hoping to be able to watch the game in peace, sitting in a cushioned seat and holding his plate in his lap.
When Nelson saw him sitting by more or less by himself, he came over and spoke to him.
“Come on over and join us,” he said, with a friendly tone that was uncharacteristic given the distant relations between the two that obtained within the firm.
“I’m fine here,” Andy said, forcing a smile.
Nelson’s face took on a look of exasperation. “Andy—come on, help me out here. I invited you for a reason. I’m trying to get more business out of this guy, and you’ve got the expertise he needs.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to seem stand-offish.”
“Seriously, come over and talk to him. Tell him what you did for that American Theatre company and I’ll make it worth your while if we get the tax work.”
Andy gulped, and he could feel sweat running down his sides. He hated above all things to make meaningless small talk with strangers, and especially where there was such a disconnect between his mind and another’s. This fellow Dayton seemed to be all surface no depth—what could they possibly have in common? It would be torture.
“All right,” he said, getting up carefully so as not to spill his beer.
Harvey and Dayton were seated at a sort of bar where they could eat comfortably while watching the game, and Dayton, sweat forming on his forehead from his exuberance conversation, motioned for Andy to sit next to him. “Have a seat—plenty of room.”
“You try the Malbec?” Dayton asked.
“No—I’m having a beer.”
“Try it—it’s good. And best part, it’s on your partner Nelson.”
They all laughed and Andy started to say that it would come out of his pocket too, but the waiter had already appeared behind them and was pouring him a drink.
“Nelson tells me you do tax work,” Dayton said.
“Any particular industry?”
“Well, I’ve actually done a fair amount for theatre chains.”
“No kidding,” Dayton said in a tone that suggested he had stumbled upon a rare gem on an idle walk. “Who for?”
“American Theatre Group,” Andy said, and there followed an exchange during which Dayton cross-examined the shyer man with an educated curiosity that determined, after a series of well-defined questions, that the lawyer could have saved him a good deal of money over the past few years in both legal fees and personal income taxes that other lawyers had lacked the creativity to avoid.
“That is incredible!” Dayton said when this colloquy was through. “Do you like single malt scotch?”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever had it,” Andy announced with shyness.
“Never had single malt scotch? Good Lord, man—you haven’t lived! Bartender!” he called, and the white-jacketed hireling appeared at his elbow.
“Do you have any single malt scotch?”
“We have Balmoral, Glenlivet, Balvenie, and Glenfiddich.”
“Can you set up a tasting flight for us? Those four?”
“Certainly,” the bartender said.
“This is a momentous occasion,” Dayton said to the three lawyers, just as a roar came over the public address system to signal the announcement of the home team’s starting lineup.
“Are the Celtics any good this year?” Dayton asked to any of the three who cared to answer.
“It’s a re-building year,” Nelson said by way of apology. “Still, it’s a good take up here in the box.”
“I don’t mean to knock ‘em one bit,” Dayton said. “They’ve had some great teams over the years.”
“They’re the New York Yankees of basketball, right?” Andy said, with the modesty of a novice.
The waiter returned with the scotch and placed a long tray holding four glasses in front of each man.
“Now, don’t be like my mother-in-law,” Dayton said.
“How’s that?” Harvey asked.
“She drinks scotch like its soda pop,” he said. “Sniff it first, get a whiff of that peat.”
They each did as instructed, and followed Dayton’s example in sipping slowly and parsimoniously.
“What’s the difference between regular scotch and single malt?” Andy asked. He’d been warmed by the liquor, and felt it open up a space within him, beginning in the lungs and spreading upwards to his head.
“Regular scotch is a blend,” Dayton said. “It’s like Wonder Bread—homogenized, pasteurized. With single malt, you’re getting a local product, each one unique, each one different. You guys ready for the next?”
“Sure,” Harvey said.
“Take a sip of water first.”
Each did as instructed, then they moved on to the second glass, then the third, then the fourth. By the time they were done, the game was well underway. The crowd had expressed by cheers and groans a series of reversals that they had been oblivious to.
“Who’s ahead?” Dayton asked, squinting at the scoreboard.
“Celtics by four, Smart already has two fouls,” one of the accountants said.
“Okay, time to settle down and watch the action,” Dayton said. He stood up and made his way down to the second row of seats. Andy stood up and Nelson nodded at him to go ahead and take a seat next to him.
The players ran up and down the court in a series of fast exchanges that made little sense to Andy.
“You play basketball in high school?” Dayton asked.
“Nope. Never played it except in gym class.”
“Too bad. Great game. Nothing better for keeping you in shape. I used to play on Saturday mornings but I blew my knee out. Now all I can do is coach my kid’s team.”
“Oh,” Andy said, then realizing he should have followed up, asked “How old is your boy?”
“I’ve got two. One’s a junior now, the other’s seventh grade—that’s the one I coach. I don’t think the junior’s going to keep it up. He only made junior varsity this year, there’s some kids only sophomores who made the varsity.”
Andy wasn’t sure exactly what that meant or how it worked, but he felt he should commiserate with Dayton. “That’s too bad,” he said.
“It’s his own damn fault. The kid’s six foot four but he doesn’t like to mix it up. He’s got what they used to call Ralph Sampson Disease.”
“What’s that mean?” Harvey said, leaning down from the row behind.
“Means he wastes his time taking shots from the perimeter, when he ought to be in the lane. The kid’s spoiled—he doesn’t like the rough stuff.”
Andy pursed his lips and shook his head, but decided not to make too much of a show of his sympathy. You never knew when you were going too far when it came to some other man’s son.
From behind them, Nelson and Harvey exploded in exaggerated outrage over a call that went against the home team, and Dayton joined in. “Fucking refs,” he said, shaking his head. “From top to bottom, they’re all incompetent or worse.”
“Get an eye exam!” Nelson yelled, seeing Dayton’s disapproval.
“What a jerk,” Harvey said, echoing the general sentiment.
Andy leaned back in his seat and took in the view of his three companions. He admired how freely they got into what was a boy’s game with easy profanity, and thereby relieved themselves of the pressures of the day. He thought of what he’d have to do the next day; a fairly complicated piece of writing, a possibly contentious conversation with the Internal Revenue Service, plus all the mind-numbing bureaucratic routines that had to be attended to during the course of a normal business day; filling out timesheets, attending a lunch meeting of all the partners, completing performance reviews for his secretary and other people whose names in some cases he didn’t recognize.
“I had a situation just last Saturday,” Dayton said. “Kid shows up to referee, he gets twenty dollars a game. The first game’s cancelled because one team can’t make it. I try to give the kid a twenty, he says if he doesn’t get forty he’s going home.”
“How old was the kid?” Harvey asked.
“High school, I don’t know. So I shell out an extra twenty bucks for nothing.”
“God damn, ref—call ‘em both ways!” Nelson said, rising with his hands outspread wide, as if in frustration.
“It gets even worse in the pros,” Dayton said, leaning over and speaking softly in Andy’s ear.
“Really?” Andy replied.
“Yep. Did you read about that bad ref a few years ago?”
“No,” Andy said, not wanting to admit he didn’t read the sports pages at all.
“The guy was gambling—gambling—on games. Can you believe that?” Dayton said in an incredulous tone. “How bad is that?”
“That’s . . . awful,” Andy said. He sank back in his chair and watched as the other three continued to complain loudly. He felt less disconnected than before, and admitted to himself that the nightlife that his partners appeared to enjoy—bookended by the talk about it the day before in anticipation, and a rehash the day afterwards with relish–wasn’t so bad.
“They finally caught the guy,” Dayton was saying, “but how can you trust a game where the referees—not the players—are betting?”
“Don’t think you can,” Andy said. That much seemed self-evident, even if he had no idea whether there were extenuating circumstances. He supposed if the fellow didn’t bet on games he was working, it might be all right.
“Jesus H. Christ!” Dayton said, exploding as a Toronto player collided with a Celtic with full force, leaving the latter sprawling on the floor, but resulting in a foul against the Boston player, who sat shaking his head in disbelief. “What do we have to do to get a call tonight?” Dayton yelled over the railing, a sentiment that was joined in by the others in the box.
Andy thought he should do something to show his support; everyone else had contributed some abuse, mostly dull stuff you’d hear at any sporting event but in some cases very colorful and creative. He stood up and surveyed the scene on the floor below. The Celtics’ coach was arguing with the referee, his face as red as a sunburn. The referee made a gesture with his hands that touched off a further chorus of complaint from the fans, who began to jeer loudly.
“What happened?” Andy asked Dayton.
“The guy called a technical foul on the coach.”
The two men separated, the referee in the striped shirt studiously avoiding the coach’s over-the-shoulder cracks to him. After a free throw play resumed with the referee handing the ball to a Toronto player to pass the ball in-bounds, but the Celtics’ coach made one last remark that pushed the official over the edge. He signaled a second technical and ejected the coach from the game, touching off a thunderous round of boos from the stands.
“Did he throw the coach out?” Andy asked Dayton.
“He sure did. The guy’s got rabbit ears.”
“What does that mean?”
“He’s too sensitive. He’s supposed to be able to take that shit. He shouldn’t throw the guy out—it’s just normal jawing back and forth.”
Andy looked sidewise at Dayton, and saw the suppressed outrage in his face. He felt impelled by a force new to him, and larger than himself, and began to shout, without thinking about it first, as he did with every other utterance he had made that day. “Fuck you ref—just fuck you–asshole!”
Andy turned with a smile, expecting others to receive his contribution to the shouted obscenities with approval, but both his group and the others in the box turned to look at him with consternation. He saw a woman sitting with the accountants in the last row of the box with two young boys, probably her sons. The three were looking at him, the boys in amazement, the woman with repressed fury in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Andy began, then stopped. “Was I . . .”
“Never mind,” Harvey said. “You just got caught up in the crowd.”
“He doesn’t get out much,” Nelson said to Dayton, who had slunk down in his seat as if to separate himself from a man who had lost his self-control.
“Sure, no problem,” Dayton said.
“I think I’ll get a drink of water. Excuse me,” Andy said as he made his way up to the bar, past rows of eyes that took him while avoiding his gaze.
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Ice Cubes for the Hell Ship and Other Legal Fictions.”