There were six at the table. It was always six, this posse. Not one couple alone, not the two "best friends" couples one always sees going out to dinner, but three couples, each pairing plainly visible to anyone looking.
The first couple was so obvious as to be pathetically adorable, the aging but not yet old couple that looked like a pair of newlyweds, as well they were, Shirley Schmidt and Carl Sack. The second pair was obvious in the way they gazed at each other, but seemed suited oddly; that was Jerry Espenson and Katie Lloyd, an apparent pairing of the high school solo geek and the pretty girl everyone liked.
The third was even more blatant than the other two, for it was the couple that had obviously been married for years – had it really only been two months since the wedding? If Denny Crane and Alan Shore – they were out of the office at the moment, so perhaps that should have been Denny and Alan Crane – didn't possess the shocking twinness, psychic ability, and sentence-completion factor of any couple married for twenty years, no couple did.
Champagne was being poured around the table, a bottle of Taittinger, at Denny's insistence, for life was too short to drink bad champagne. "Happy Valentine's Day, everyone," he pronounced, raising his glass to all five seated with him. "And the doctor's starting me on my drug trial first thing in the morning."
"Hear, hear." That was from Carl, with acknowledging murmurs around the seats. "Good luck, Denny."
"Thanks, Carl. I'm looking forward to it. A certain amount of mad cow's amusing, but there has to be a limit."
"Excuse me," a voice cut in timidly. That was Jerry. Katie was working overtime at helping him break through the shell he'd built around his Asperger's Syndrome. "I think another toast's in order." He stood up. "To Crane, Schmidt, and Shore – the three best names on any door in Boston."
"Eight more weeks," Alan sighed as Jerry sat. "And I hope Paul and his overlords don't let the door slam on their asses when Chang, Lewiston and Sandberg finally get moved out of the building." He rose, glass in hand. "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mist, and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due."
"A bit morbid, don't you think?" Shirley asked.
"Not really." Alan slid back into his seat. "It's not my line to begin with – it's stolen from one of the greatest authors of the last century. It's fitting. Six of us from Crane, Poole and Schmidt here, another dozen or so also out the door, more bailing from Chang, Lewiston and Sandberg every couple of days, and Chang, Lewiston being pitched out of our offices –"
"And our balcony," Denny added.
"And our balcony. Let us not forget the balcony. Absent friends – a fitting description of Paul, I'm afraid. I'm not sure any of us are likely to see him again anywhere except across the aisle in court."
"Or the devil," Carl added. "To give him his due, he made Crane, Schmidt and Shore possible. And probably helped speed up two weddings."
"And got us together," Katie added, reaching to squeeze Jerry's hand. He blushed, as everyone around him pretended not to notice.
Shirley spoke, ostensibly to her water glass. "Absent friends, lost loves… Paul might fit there, too."
Carl turned to look at his wife. "You and Paul?" He raised an eyebrow.
She shook her head, blonde hair glistening in candlelight. "God, no, Carl. It's just an old thing in the old firm. Paul had an affair with someone in the office back when. I don't think his wife ever knew."
Alan turned his head to look at Denny, whose eyes were staring at an unfixed mark in the distance. Alan knew how to read Denny, and recognized that nonetheless, Denny was paying strict attention to what Shirley said.
It was merely confirmation of something Alan had always suspected. There'd had to be a reason for Paul's visceral hatred of Alan from their first meeting, and nothing explained that better than meeting your ex-lover's newest, and far younger, lover. In their case, newer, far younger, and with competing legal skills. Paul had loathed Denny's taking Alan under his wing, his obvious grooming of him as the "new" Denny Crane. It probably galled Paul no end that Alan had taken Denny's name socially; it merely solidified the connection to Denny as his heir to Denny's career as
well as his fortune.
Shirley continued. "It broke up some time around when I came on board." She was looking at Alan now, and Alan returned her glance. Shirley could be subtle, and Alan had long known that she realized he could read her. So Denny's falling for Shirley had broken him up with Paul, had it? That was no surprise, either. "Old story, Carl. Just some old memories Denny and I have."
Denny nodded. "Even mad cow can't make some things get out of your head."
"If anyone ever wrote the history of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt," Alan asked, "would it be a comedy or would it be a documentary version of 'Peyton Place'?"
"'Peyton Place' was a documentary novel," Shirley told him. "It's about a couple of thinly disguised real towns in New Hampshire. And Crane, Poole and Schmidt probably held a lid on more scandals than that book and the sequel thrown together."
"And the TV series. Both of them." Denny spoke firmly. "All water under the bridge now. Even Paul. New firm ahead of us. New lives. New series. It's all good."
The waiter came to their table with a tray of appetizers that began circulating. Alan ruminated for a moment before choosing something that resembled chicken livers wrapped with bacon. It was something he hadn't seen since his childhood, but then, everything old did become new again.
He took a few more items – were those fried won ton? – and passed the platter to Carl.
The restaurant was becoming somewhat more crowded as couples of various ages began taking up smaller tables, and as the unattached in flocks began occupying tables for four and looking about for something or someone to do for Valentine's Day. Alan had been among those groups once –
as a young couple with his late wife, and as part of various on-the-town groups during law school. He could have had a private dinner with Denny, but somewhere between Thanksgiving and Paul's announcement of the firm's buyout, the six senior members of Crane, Poole and Schmidt's litigation division had simply clicked as a group. It was strange to realize that he had not only a best friend and some colleagues, but a husband and two couples who were very close friends. It wasn't how he had envisioned his life even three months before, but it was undoubtedly satisfying, amazingly so.
And despite the words in Denny's proposal, the sex had been anything but lousy. There had been those undiscussed, somewhat fumbling, prior occasions between them, of course, but now Denny had proven himself to be much more accomplished in bed with Alan than he had seemed to be in
the past. Perhaps the fact of their marriage had something to do with it, or else the fact that Paul was no longer a looming and unacknowledged part of Denny's life. The self-proclaimed homophobe with all manner of issues had turned out to be the most satisfactory male lover Alan had
experienced, and he'd had better than minimal experience throughout his life. Apparently marriage really did change you.
"Hello, Denny, Alan. Shirley." Speaking of giving the devil his due, or just of the devil, there was no mistaking that gratingly emphatic accent.
"Paul." Paul Lewiston was there, in a somewhat more stylish, less Brooks Brothers, suit than Alan had ever seen him wear before. The tie and pocket square were less flamboyant than Denny's but Alan could tell that they were equally expensive and probably from Hermes. With him was a much younger man; much younger, in fact, than Alan. Alan blinked again. Oh, God, no, it wasn't…
"Alan, I believe you remember Norman Wilson. He was the ADA at Denny's trial. One of our new senior associates at Chang, Lewiston. Perhaps not quite your equal yet as a litigator, but he seems to have a flair for business litigation. Once he finishes his courses in Mandarin, we have high hopes for him helping me with our Asian market partners."
Denny and Carl eyed Wilson with barely-concealed contempt. Shirley reserved her death-glare for Paul. Alan was more magnanimous though certainly no less sarcastic than ever. "I'm sure Mr. Wilson will be quite a decorative addition to your newly relocating offices. Do enjoy mentoring him in
everything you know better than he does, whatever that is. Mr. Wilson, Paul can be quite charming. Just don't let him bite you when he goes down… to your office."
"Alan Shore," Paul hissed indignantly. The Paul Lewiston hiss didn't have half the power it once had seemed to.
Norman Wilson. Newer, younger, and not nearly as legally talented as Denny Crane. Or as Alan. And something told Alan that Paul had helped Wilson set Denny up at the solicitation trial. He'd spit things out to the jury about Denny and Alan that only someone from Crane, Poole and Schmidt should have known. Revenge was going to taste even better than dinner.
"That's Alan Crane, Paul, and I'll take your dulcet tones as the obvious congratulations they must be for my having married Denny. I believe I cleared out my belongings too quickly for you to congratulate me at the time, but as soon as your office has finished its move I'll be hauling them back where they belong and you can leave my wedding presents at my desk. We registered with Tiffany's. A tip, Mr. Wilson – just because you're sleeping with a senior partner doesn't guarantee your safety at a law firm. Paul kept trying to prove that to me repeatedly before we evicted you. If you can't outsmart them, you won't outfuck them. And I don't think you're the sort Paul marries. He likes his more Back Bay and more closely shaved – in fact, the only beards Paul likes are the ones he marries."
"How dare you –"
"Very easily, Paul. Check the names going up when the janitors pull yours down from the office when you leave. Happy Valentine's Day."
Paul and his companion walked off indignantly as Alan returned his attention to the rest of his table. "Sorry about that, Carl. My bad."
Carl chuckled. "Your name's on the door, not mine. Nice job, I must say."
"Admirable," Katie proclaimed.
"That's why I married you," Denny told him. "What you can do with that mouth will never cease to amaze me."
Alan's lips parted, but words failed to materialize. When his brain realigned, he managed, "Thank you for that stirring endorsement, Denny. Ladies and gentlemen, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
"Mad cow. Denny Crane. Drug trials tomorrow, and Denny Crane has never lost a trial." Alan's husband nodded triumphantly to everyone at the table.
"Once again," Carl sighed, "to Crane, Schmidt, and Shore. And possibly to our absent friends remaining absent."
"Lost loves," Denny replied. "Don't need 'em, don't want to find 'em."
Alan slid his hand over to Denny's. "I think we can all drink to that."
And the remainder of the table chorused, "Hear, hear."