Shooting the Moon
Almost a hundred years after the demise of the Jönköping, I sit on the paint-peeling porch of the Montclair Assisted Living Estate, in the decrepit plastic hammock of my wheelchair, and look out, through the topiaried hedges, past the dogwood trees, across the upper-middleclass wasteland of Upper Montclair, to the northeast, toward Sweden, and slowly and methodically eviscerate Jean in two-person hearts, a bastardization of the game that she insists on playing. Her strategy is rudimentary and juvenile, and I’m on autopilot.
In my right hand I hold some low hearts, no face cards, and the potentially disastrous queen of spades. My left hand fingers the four corners of a folded piece of yellow newsprint that hasn’t left my sight since it was given to me by my wife, Alice, just a week before she died in my arms. As Jean hopelessly rearranges her hand, I remove the paper from my pocket, slowly unfold it, and recite aloud:
“ ‘On October 25, 1916, the ketch Jönköping left the Swedish port of Gävle with 4,400 bottles of Heidsieck & Co. Champagne “Goût Américain” for Grand Duke Nicolas, cousin of Tsar Nicolas II and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Imperial Army. The vintage of the Champagne was 1907 [Alice’s vintage, mind you] and was earmarked for the horsemen in the Russian Imperial Army’s cavalry.
They never received it. On November 3, 1916, German U-boat U22 spotted the Jönköping, decided a torpedo would be overkill for the wood-hulled vessel, and opened fire with the deck gun instead. The Jönköping sank, along with her cargo, to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.’ ”
Jean nods, but she’s focused on the impossible task of somehow abating the deluge of hearts I’m sending her way with every trick.
“Do you know what that means?” I ask.
“What’s a ketch?” asks Jean.
Jean has no vision. She is content to sit in a rocking chair, sipping iced tea, reading Jodi Picoult, and losing at hearts.
“It’s a kind of sailboat,” I say.
“What’s it got to do with you?” she asks.
“My son and I are going to Sweden,” I say. “To raise it.”
Jean looks at me like I’m crazy. Like I said, no vision.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Why did Sir Edmund Hillary climb Everest?”
“Because it was there. Also, the money.”
“What’s it worth?” asks Jean.
“A lot,” I say, not wanting to fully divulge my plans. “More than enough to get me out of here.”
Jean looks at me like she can’t understand where I’d go. Visionless.
“Does Sandy know that he’s going to Sweden?” she asks.
“Not yet,” I say. “But Sandy has ambition and general know-how. And as a kid he loved treasure hunts.”
“Does he know how to raise a sailboat from the bottom of the ocean?” she asks.
“I’m sure he doesn’t know off the top of his head.”
“Isn’t he in advertising?”
“We’ll figure it out together. It’s called ingenuity.”
“Seems different than advertising.”
I play my last card, the queen, and Jean is forced to take the trick, sealing her fate.
Last week, I called Sandy out of the blue and invited him to MALE with the idea of telling him about Sweden face to face. He asked why he had to come all the way to New Jersey. God forbid he takes two hours out of his day to visit his father. I had to say something to convince him, so I concocted an abuse scandal. I told him that a group of orderlies had been coming into my room at night, holding me down, and fondling my genitals while an RN named Hector masturbated in the corner. I actually used the term “genitals” to lend a degree of clinical seriousness to the story. As the coup de grace, I told him that, at my age, my wrinkled member is incapable of becoming engorged, and it is only due to some bizarre geriatric fetish that Hector is able to get off every night. (All lies, of course. The orderlies here are, to a man, Sallys.)
Big surprise, Sandy said he’d come. He sounded genuinely concerned, and I actually started to feel bad I took it so far. He believed the story because he thinks I’m frail. He thinks I’m an old man. I can see pity in his eyes when he talks to me, which, these days, isn’t so often.
I want the tickets to be a surprise for two reasons. One, the money. I’ve already put out feelers to two New York-based auction houses and three high-end retail stores. Factor in the backstory, and I suspect the revenues will be hefty, at least $2,000 per bottle. Play a few interested parties off one another, and I’m sure that number will creep up. Allowing for 25 percent breakage over time, I calculate revenues of close to $12 million. Amortize the sales over ten years to prevent market saturation, subtract expenses, and I’d still reel in enough profit to have a pied-a-terre in the city plus a four-bedroom tax-haven in Nassau.
The second and main reason for the trip is to revive a relationship that has been on the fritz since Alice died, and Sandy blamed me for it. Not in so many words, of course, but he thinks that she had another five years in her if she had been in a place like MALE, instead of the comfort of her own home—a home where we spent the entirety of our married life, and where Sandy was raised. What kind of five years is that? That’s what I said. Sandy disagreed.
After she died, Sandy stole my money and banished me, like Papillon, to this place. “I’m not going through this again,” he told me. “You’re going to have the care that Mom should have had,” he said. I told him I could wrestle a bull to the ground to save a fair maiden, should that situation arise. “You’ve had four heart attacks,” he said. “Yes,” I said, “in 1975, 1982, 1993, and a minor one in 2000, which may have just been palpitations when the ample breasts of a recently divorced phlebotomist in her thirties brushed against me. Her scent was that of Alice, and I had a Proustian olfactory episode so powerful, that I thought, when she’s done pricking me, I just might return the favor.”
Sandy said he’d pick me up at one and take me for lunch in the city. I said better make it eleven thirty. He said fine. I said super, can’t wait.
Sandy takes me to a place in Hell’s Kitchen called McNeil’s. It’s a glorified diner. Hardly a place to have a celebration. When I ask him if he usually dines so poorly, he looks at me with lifeless eyes. All the sparkle and ting that Alice passed along to Sandy is gone. His eyelids sag, he’s got bags, and his scleras are bloodshot. He looks tired. I try to remember if he looked so tired the last time I saw him. Nothing comes.
There’s a line of self-important looking twenty-year-olds in tight pants and sunglasses that backs up almost to the door. As we reach the top of the ramp, I feel a bump and realize that Sandy’s just wheeled me over the high-heeled foot of a skinny witch in oversized sunglasses.
“Watch it,” she says. Sandy makes like he’s going to apologize so I cut in.
“You watch it,” I say. “I lost my legs taking mortar fire in World War II, what have you ever done for this country?”
Not true, of course, but it does the trick. Her eyes go wide like the peepers on one of those endangered owls. She’s just the kind of person Sandy never was. No job, no ambition, living off of her parents. Say what you will about Sandy, he’s always been a hard worker.
“Keep moving,” I say to Sandy. “You’re better than these people.”
My son, much to my annoyance, shakes his head at her and apologizes, as if having a boot-string tourniquet wrapped around your legs in a foxhole was a small thing. Not that I had that, but still.
“And don’t wear sunglasses inside,” I say.
The maître d’ seats us at a table in the corner, and I pick up the menu. Sandy says nothing, but silence between us isn’t unusual. Sandy and I always had a kinetic relationship, the sort that functioned best when in motion. We never said anything specifically, an admission of feeling like an “I love you,” for example, but teased out a mutual respect through the act of doing. Doing anything, really—fishing, building a picnic table, playing hearts. Our relationship was unspoken but solid. I maintain hope that it will be again.
The food at McNeil’s is garbage, but it’s the Ritz compared to the slop they serve in the cafeteria at MALE. Looking at the menu, it occurs to me that I haven’t thought about provisioning the voyage at all. That makes me think of red meat. The sailors, being sailors and not in advertising like Sandy, will want this. Look into the possibility of buying in bulk. Carbohydrates will be essential for energy. Pasta/bread/potatoes are to be the staples of this trip. Scurvy: how long before this sets in? Fruits are a necessity, probably canned. Look into availability and price of canned fruit in Scandinavia. Lastly, vodka or Swedish equivalent. Akvavit? Possible to buy this by the gallon?
I flip through the laminated pages of the menu looking for a wine list. I’m thinking we’ll want a bottle of champagne, perhaps even some Heidsieck, to celebrate our trip, and the waiter should probably get it on ice now. There’s no wine list. Only page after page of pot roast, meatloaf, hamburgers, and sandwiches named after celebrities. Sandy orders the Kate Moss. I order a Kirstie Alley, extra mayo, which is really just a club sandwich. I ask the waiter why not just call it a club sandwich, and he looks at me like I’m crazy. “It’s our thing,” he says.
“Make that no mayo, no bacon,” says Sandy.
“Bacon, extra mayo,” I say.
The waiter looks confused so I set him straight.
“This man is my son, and he thinks he knows what’s best,” I say. “But it’s my sandwich.”
“Dad, you can’t be eating mayo and bacon. You know that. It’ll kill you.”
“Without mayo and bacon, I don’t want to live.”
With a flick of the wrist, I send the waiter scampering back to the kitchen. He shakes his head. Like he has any idea what it’s like to have people tell you what you can eat.
“And this thing about Hector,” says Sandy. “You’ve got to stop with it.”
“You knew I made it up?”
“Of course I knew. You’re at the best assisted-living facility in the tristate. They don’t hire just anyone.”
“So I made it up, big deal,” I say.
“Big deal?” he says. “You can’t talk about the nurses that way.”
It occurs to me that we will probably need a nurse accompanying us on this trip. Sandy, being cautious like his mother, will demand this. Preferably someone knowledgeable in the ailments caused by prolonged submersion (the bends, etc.) but also with the ability to set a broken bone or perform minor surgery as needed.
“Yeah, big deal,” I say. “No harm done. I wanted to get you out to lunch and I know you’re a busy man.”
“You know I’m a busy man, yet you decided to drag me here by lying.”
“I wanted to have lunch with my son.”
“You could have asked. But you lied.”
“So I lied,” I say. “We’ve got things to talk about.”
I reach for the tickets in the inside pocket of my sports coat and place them on my lap.
“Stop complaining,” I say.
Sandy looks at me, and right away I know I’ve said the wrong thing. He picks up his spoon and starts stirring his coffee, even though it’s black, and I get the feeling that he’s barely hanging on, and I don’t know why. I realize that I’ve only seen Sandy look this way once before, but it was long ago, and I can’t quite put my finger on when. All of my memories of him are condensed into a handful of stills from his youth, and I realize, suddenly and powerfully, how things have changed. “Listen,” I say. “I’ve got a proposition for you.”
“I don’t want a proposition,” he says.
“Don’t say that,” I say. “You look terrible. So just listen.”
“I’ve got a proposition for you: why don’t you stop eating mayo and live to see your grandkids grow up?”
“Alright, if I don’t eat the mayo, will you listen to my proposition?”
He sighs like I’m some sort of geriatric dead weight, but I pay him no attention. I take a sip of my water, pull the article from my pocket, and read.
“ ‘On October 25, 1916, the ketch Jönköping left the Swedish port of Gävle with 4,400 bottles of Heidsieck & Co. Champagne “Goût Américain” for Grand Duke Nicolas, cousin of Tsar Nicolas II and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Imperial Army. The vintage of the Champagne was 1907, and it was destined for the horseman in the Russian Imperial Army’s cavalry. They never received it. On November 3, 1916, German U-boat U22 spotted the Jönköping, decided a torpedo would be overkill for the wood-hulled vessel, and opened fire with the deck gun instead. The Jönköping sank, along with her cargo, to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.’ ”
I lean back to let him take it all in. His stare is vacant, like he’s watching something behind me.
“What does that have to do with anything?” he asks.
“Your mother gave me this article right before she died.”
I hand him the article. He unfolds it quickly, taking no care to preserve it, and only glances at the headline.
“And you saved it?” he asks.
“I saved it.”
“Because, do you know what the year 1907 is?”
“Mom was born.”
“Exactly. And do you remember what her father did?”
“Wasn’t he in textiles or something?”
“That was later. Much later. He was in the cavalry.”
“So, that champagne was for him.”
“What are you saying?” he asks.
“I’m saying, those bottles are our property, and they’re worth a lot of money. We finance an expedition. Go to Sweden. Raise the ship. Sell the champagne. We’ll make a killing.”
“Plus, Mom’s legacy.”
He laughs once and then looks at me and sees I’m not laughing.
“Wait, you’re serious?” he asks.
“Of course I am,” I say.
Our food arrives. Even though he took our order only ten minutes ago, the waiter can’t remember who ordered what. I’m about to make him guess and wager his tip he can’t when Sandy lets him off the hook.
I make a show of wiping the extra mayo off my bread and stacking the bacon on the side of the plate.
“See,” I say. “I can make an effort.”
“It’s insane. I’m not going to Sweden,” says Sandy.
“So many reasons.”
“Those bottles are there, waiting for us. It’ll be like old times,” I say.
When Sandy was a kid, treasure was all he thought about. All he ever talked about was hunting for buried treasure.
“I was a kid,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous idea.”
Inflatable bladders aren’t a ridiculous idea. They’re submerged using 150-pound lead weights and then attached to the Jönköping. When inflated with compressed nitrogen, they gently raise everything to the surface. I read about them in a National Geographic left in the waiting room at MALE. Genius.
“Dad, surely you see the problems with this plan?”
I look at Sandy’s wrinkled face, his lower lip drooping, and think, I, at my ripe old age, have more energy than this poor kid. I’ve almost finished half my sandwich; he has only nibbled at his salad.
“If you’re going to get a salad, at least eat the whole thing,” I say.
“I mean, tell me you see the shortcomings in this plan,” he says.
“They’re all in your mind. Those bottles are worth money,” I say. “We’ll split the profits seventy/thirty.”
“Dad, please,” he says, begging.
“Fine, sixty/forty, but no less. I’m organizing the whole thing. Intellectual property and all that. Sixty/forty. Final over.”
“I’m not going to Sweden. You’re not going to Sweden. No one’s going to Sweden.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“Mainly because it’s ridiculous. And impossible.”
This is not the Sandy I once knew. The Sandy who could believe four impossible things before he was even done with breakfast. The Sandy who made plans to find Braddock’s payroll by the time he was sixteen.
“I need a better reason than that. Most di˜cult things seem impossible at the outset.”
“Well, for one, my job,” he says.
“This is just the reason you need to quit.”
“I don’t want to quit my job,” he says.
“You like advertising? You think that’s a worthwhile way to spend your time?”
“It’s okay. I make a decent salary, good benefits.”
What I’m offering is adventure. Open seas. What he has is coffee from a cart and stale pretzels.
“A decent salary? Good benefits?” I ask. “I don’t remember you coming home from the first day of fourth grade talking about how you wanted to make a decent salary and good benefits. You wanted to find the Kiln Canyon treasure.”
“Yeah, well, times change. You should understand that better than anyone.”
“And you think that selling a razor with ten blades to prepubescent boys from New Jersey is a good way to spend your life?”
“The Gillette account is not small.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t need you to understand.”
“And neither would your mother,” I say.
He lowers and shakes his head, but it’s true. I can’t believe I’m thinking this, but thank God she’s not here to see her son wasting away. She had dreams for her only son, and they didn’t include spending his youth stuck in a dingy midtown cubicle, writing copy for the tops of yellow cabs. Sandy’s smarter than Alice and me combined, which is why it doesn’t make sense. At one point, he knew how to dream. And not just silly dreams. He had talent. He had the talent you need to take the dreams and work at them until something happens. I can see my comment has hurt him, but that was the point. Shock therapy. Somehow jog him out of this funk.
“I want us to do this,” I say. “Together.”
“No,” he says, “and that’s final.”
I slide the tickets from my lap back into my jacket pocket.
When we get back, Jean is waiting by the front door. She stands askew, favoring her good hip, and she looks so frail that I barely recognize her. She gives Sandy a hug and a creepy knowing nod, and we all go in together.
“Time for hearts,” she says. “Sandy, want to join us today?”
There are things in this world I’ll never understand. Calculus. Mandarin. Why Jean insists on losing to me at hearts.
“Sure,” says Sandy.
We sit around the card table, and Jean deals. It has been a long time since I’ve played hearts with Sandy. Alice and I taught him the game when he was twelve, on a sailing trip we took in the Keys. He got a sunburn on the back of his neck that was so bad his skin bubbled like lava. It was his first bad sunburn, and he couldn’t sleep or eat or help sail, so we taught him hearts. He was pretty good too. Not as good as me, of course, and nowhere near as good as Alice, who would beat us all.
In hearts, the pass is paramount. You learn a lot about a player from his pass. If he passes an ace, king, or queen of spades, he’s probably short that suit. If he passes low spades, he’s a novice. If he’s passing low hearts, he’s going to shoot the moon. Jean, ever the beginner, passes me all spades, the eight, the nine, and the queen. Sandy has the two of clubs, so he leads. I dump the eight of clubs, and Jean wins the trick with the jack. It’s too easy.
“So, about Sweden,” I say.
“How often does he talk about Sweden when I’m not here?” Sandy asks Jean.
“Oh, not too often,” says Jean.
Meanwhile we’re into the hearts, and Jean’s dumping them with reckless abandon. She doesn’t notice me slowly picking them up.
“Not too often to you,” I say, “because you’re not relevant.”
“What?” says Jean and lays down a low heart—another foolish move.
“Not relevant,” I say, “irrelevant. You’re not coming.”
“Why not?” she asks.
“For one, the bum hip.”
Jean walks with a limp, due to a hip replacement in the early nineties. The procedure, I’m certain, was botched, as it was when Alice had hers replaced. Lately I’ve begun counseling Jean on this matter, pro bono. It’s proven to be a welcome sometimes-diversion from the expedition. When one is contemplating the logistical technicalities of acquiring a barge outfitted with a crane with bunks for at least six, deep-diving equipment, and the latest in sonar and other maritime technologies, as well as a hyperbaric chamber and, most importantly, a custom-built, temperature-and-humidity-controlled wine refrigeration system, one welcomes these diversions from time to time.
“Dad, give me a break,” says Sandy. “She’s your only friend.”
“I don’t need a friend.”
“Don’t patronize me,” I say. “I’m your father. You might be able to stick me in here, but I’ll always be your father.”
“I didn’t stick you in here Dad, you have to be here.”
“Why can’t I come?” asks Jean.
“You’re just not needed,” I say.
“Dad, please,” he says and gets that tired look in his eyes. I win two more tricks, both full of hearts. It’s like Sandy’s not even paying attention.
“I have nothing here,” I say.
“It’s beautiful here.”
I suppose it is, Sandy, but I’m not sure why it matters anymore. Beauty was Alice, and it died when she did. I struggle to find it in other things. Now, beauty is a scene I see nightly in my dreams: Our boat bobs gently on the dark green sea as I watch bubbles percolating on the surface—the only evidence on an otherwise calm ocean that my team toils leagues below. Then, with no warning, one of the divers appears, spits the regulator from his mouth, and gives me a slight, almost imperceptible nod. He raises above his head a single bottle of champagne. Sandy and I look at each other and smile.
“I have no money,” I say.
“I give you money. What do you think pays for this? For round-the-clock care?”
“I have no money, which is why I had to come up with an alternative method to buy these,” I say. I pull the tickets from my pocket and hand them to Sandy.
“What are these?” he asks.
“Tickets,” I say. “Tickets to Sweden.”
“Where did you get these?”
“I bought them. Called a travel agent.”
“With what money?”
“I put them on a credit card.”
“On my credit card? You put two tickets to Sweden on my credit card without asking me?”
“I bought them for us.”
“How much?” he asks.
“Not a lot. Sweden’s not exactly a top tourist destination.”
“Fifteen hundred. Give or take. That’s for two round-trip though.”
He picks up the tickets longingly, and for a second I think I’ve got him. I let myself mistake his disgust for intrigue. I can picture him standing on the bowsprit of our boat as it crashes through the waves. His energy is renewed, and he looks majestic. He looks like Alice. My son.
“You can’t just buy things on my credit card,” he says.
“I wouldn’t have to if I had a credit card of my own. But it was taken from me when I was banished, like—”
“Yeah, yeah, banished like Papillon. I get it.”
“To a place where they tell me what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep, when to wake up. I can’t take a shit without it being logged in.”
“How could you do this? Half the money I make goes into this place. I work to keep you here.”
“I’m offering you a way out. Potentially upwards of $5 million each. And a project. Something to do. A goal, for once.”
“You won’t even make it to the airport in your condition.”
“I want to go to Sweden,” I say. “Let’s use the tickets.”
“Other than your job, and that there are some logistical things to consider, why not?”
“Other than those two major hurdles? This is why not: Because you’re asking me why not is why not. Because your heart barely works is why not. Because you bought two tickets to Sweden based on some old newspaper clipping Mom gave you when she was barely coherent is why not. Because even if the wine was there and intact and worth something, did you forget that we know nothing about deep-sea salvage?”
“Don’t be sarcastic with me.”
“It’s hard not to be.”
He leans back in his chair.
“Give me the card,” says Sandy.
“No,” I say, and my hand instinctively goes to my back pocket. “I need it. For emergencies. I won’t do it again.”
“Give it to me. Don’t make me take it.”
Before I know what’s happening, he puts his cards on the table and comes toward me. I press my elbows to my ribs, but he pries his hands in and lifts me up by the armpits. It seems easy. My legs dangle uselessly below me. I remember when I used to pick Sandy up and put him on my shoulders. It was easy. He reaches into my back pocket and takes out my wallet. He puts me down, sits in his seat, and opens it. He slides the credit card out with his thumb and tosses the wallet back toward me. The leather thuds on the table.
“I’m tired, Dad, you know? I’ve given up everything to allow you to live here in comfort. And all I get is grief.”
“I’m sorry you’re tired,” I say.
“What do you want from me?” he asks.
“How about a little enthusiasm for once,” I say. “You lost it at some point.”
The point was when Alice died.
“Or an apology,” I say.
I don’t know if I mean to me, or to his mother.
Sandy leans into Jean and looks away. She starts to stroke his head. Alice used to stroke his head just like that. I remember when we were married sixty-five years ago at my parents’ house on the beach at Buzzard’s Bay. She takes the back of Sandy’s head in her hand and pulls it toward the crook between her neck and shoulder. I know he’s probably twice her size, but he looks small.
I lay down my cards: thirteen hearts and the queen of spades. I shot the moon. I pick up the pencil and write down our scores. Twenty-six points for Sandy. He doesn’t even look up when I give him the bad news. Twenty-six points for Jean. She shakes her head back and forth slowly.
Zero points for me. I win.
Charles Antin has had fiction appear in Alimentum, Fugue, Glimmer Train (where he won the award for very short fiction), Rosebud, Unstuck, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. His essays have appeared in Food & Wine magazine and the New York Times. He is a specialist and auctioneer in the Wine Department at Christie’s, where bottles of the 1907 Goût Américain, from the Swedish ketch Jönköping, have sold for over $3,000 each.
“Shooting the Moon” appears in our Summer 2012 issue.