How Barbarians Eat Lobster

His money-green eyes, almost always a step or two ahead of the action, were now riveted on the creature in front of him, which peered angrily back with scalded black little eyes on the end of weird eyestalks.

Dr. Albert Prescott Barrow was born into a New England textile manufacturing family with significant new wealth and wise old intelligence. He was so well-to-do and exclusively schooled that he lived well into his middle sixties before he realized, for the first time, that lobster comes in a shell.

I was there the day he found out. He sat at the table on my front porch when an un-husked two pound lobster was set before him on a white plate with a small bowl of golden clarified butter. He peered at the red, steaming carapace with big pincher claws and his perfectly combed and barbered moustache twitched under his long nose. His money-green eyes, almost always a step or two ahead of the action, were now riveted on the creature in front of him, which peered angrily back with scalded black little eyes on the end of weird eyestalks.

I’d never seen Dr. Barrow bollixed before. He sat a horse like a Spanish nobleman from Andalusia, where indeed he had ridden during his boarding school and Harvard years with the best equestrians on earth. He could freely choose which of any whole floor in almost any skyscraper in Manhattan to make his personal offices, and landlords wet their pants with appreciation if he deigned to select them. He invested in and made small extra fortunes with Broadway plays that were written, acted in and produced by his cleverer Jewish classmates. He was almost never without a witty quip or a learned exposition on corporate governance, politics and the theater at the classiest levels.

But as he stared at that lobster on his plate, his face was a chalky mask of gravest apprehension and terror.

He sat speechless and intimidated while the rest of us happily tied on our bibs and prepared to wield the nutcrackers and the lobster forks.

“What am I to do with this?” Dr. Barrow finally croaked.

I cannot honestly say that I was not amused by Dr. Barrow’s predicament. I could have intervened to make him more comfortable several seconds before I did, and instead I was weak enough to succumb to the pleasures of watching a perpetually tumescent ego wilt and shrink at the sight of a seafood dinner.

“Dr. Barrow, it’s easy,” I finally said. “Here. I’ll show you on mine. Use the nutcracker to crack the claws . . . and this little fork to grab and pull out the lobster meat. Then, you can use your knife to poke a hole in his or her under-shell near the join with the head, and then make a cut from head to tail, break the shell backward with your hands, and pull the meat out with the fork and dip the meat in the melted butter before you eat it.” I slowly demonstrated each motion as if showing an operating theater of brain surgeons how to do a cella turcican dismounting procedure.

“I have never done this before,” he mumbled. “We have cooks and maids.” And while his hands made a tentative tremble in the direction of the nutcracker, they were stayed by a biting message from his father that said: “Albert! You are not a barbarian!”

He looked at me with a pleading face that I had never seen before, and I de-shelled the lobster for him. I saw that pleading face only once again after that, which is the time this story is about.

It was three years later in the sunny bedroom of a luxury suite in a posh wing of a world-famous hospital on the East Side of Manhattan. Dr. Barrow was a pale stalk of white asparagus under the hand-ironed white linen sheets. His lion’s mane of hair was now thin and ashen white; his skin was the color and texture of congealed lamb fat. His long face was slack-jawed, his purplish eyelids closed and his skeletal hands were clasped over his heart and rested atop of a pair of exquisitely tailored navy blue silk pajamas with 22-carat gold frogs for buttons.

“Dr. Barrow?” I whispered.

His eyes blinked open and when he saw me his head snapped back in surprise. “Oh, I am so glad you came,” he said. “I think this time is it. I can’t seem to call on my survival chemicals any longer.”

Dr. Barrow believed that the mammalian body keeps a store of “survival chemicals” available in some as-yet-undiscovered gland, like emergency fire extinguishers in a hotel, and if you know how you can persuade your brains to secrete these chemicals and quickly restore you to health and youth. Twice before in the previous three years he had gone to the mat with his brains and both times his will power had won.

I had avoided seeing him in the hospital during those earlier times because I felt there was little good I might do. But this time some telepathy caused me to call him. His wife, Sophia, a Palm Beach watercolorist from Budapest, who favored small poodles and tight white toreador pants, informed me that “Dr. Barrow may not have much more time left.”

I sat down in a chair beside his bed and wondered at the way the human body withers itself to death.

“I am throwing up six times an hour,” Dr. Barrow said in a weak but clear voice. “Nothing stays down, not even ice. They say it’s the side effect of the chemotherapy drugs, and this time my spirit is less and less willing to argue for more time.”

“What are they giving you to combat the nausea?” I asked him.

“They say they have nothing,” he said, “and some experimental drug they gave me didn’t help at all.”

“Have you tried pot?”

His eyes suddenly glittered green.

“No. . . . Because I don’t know where to get it, but I hear it is very good for vomiting.”

“I’ll get you some,” I said.

That’s when I saw that second pleading look from a proud man.

“Will you really?” he asked, and I understood that his great fear was that I might fail to keep my promise.

“I will. I’ll get it for you by tomorrow this time.”

Dr. Barrow looked me in the eyes and explained: “I have asked Sophia to get some for me and she says marijuana is not legal and she will not participate in any illegal acts.”

I cannot actually say whether he spoke from innocence or irony. I did not ask.

The next night I brought him a brown paper bag with a small jar that contained an ounce of rather mild Acapulco gold. There was also a Missouri meerschaum pipe with a small bowl screen and a Colibri butane lighter. I showed him how to light up, to inhale and to hold his breath. He did so without hesitation, and within a few minutes of gentlemanly tokes Dr. Barrow was transformed from a hospital zombie into His Old Gallant Self again.

I sat back amazed. His eyes overflowed with his customary cascade of good ideas, hopes and dreams. His anger flared, as usual, when he discussed his daughter, Hillary, who if he said “black” would reflexively shout “White!” and then taunt him, lie to him, despise and loathe him, and then demand that he pay her money to keep her from slandering him further. At Sophia’s urging, he wrote Hillary out of his will, and Hillary moved away to Santa Barbara, California with her part-time disk jockey lover and their five-year-old daughter, who was without a legitimate last name.

When I steered him away from that topic, Dr. Barrow began to discuss writing a new book about how to change one’s perception of time so as to make everything go more slowly when you want it to, so that you will get more time to take action.

Dr. Barrow’s happiness with his sudden new state of consciousness was soul deep. He had come from hopeless, undignified retching to sitting up straight in his equestrian posture with his head proud and his bony frame arranged just so with a steely discipline that he hadn’t been able to summon just two hours ago.

“I can’t believe it,” Dr. Barrow smiled childishly. “Why did I never know about this before?”

“Can it be because pot is illegal in the United States, and nothing you knowingly take part in can be illegal?” I suggested.

“Nonsense!” he snapped. “I’ve been taking amphetamines and God knows what else every day for forty-nine years or more.”

“Maybe you can’t see yourself involved in a lower class of crime?”

“That’s true,” he confessed without shame. “A classmate of mine at Harvard was convicted in a small town of shop lifting a tube of dental adhesive, while another classmate from Yale was convicted in Federal court of defrauding his stockholders of millions. I’d rather be convicted of a big crime than be humiliated by a small one.”

“You are back,” I said, and shook his hand and mentioned casually that all up and down the chemo corridor one might sniff the exotic perfume of pot smoke billowing from the rooms.

“I’ll be back on Friday to see you,” I said.

I called him three days later and he crowed that he had put on three pounds, his vomiting had ceased, he slept like an infant and he was taking a new interest in how his financial affairs were being run. On Friday, when I saw his face, I was taken aback. He was rosy skinned and uncharacteristically he boasted, “I’ll be out of here by the end of next week.”

On Tuesday I called him and instead Sophia answered. “He’s taken a turn for the worse,” she said.

“What happened?”

“That’s all I can say. Good bye.”

That night I took executive privilege and went to see Dr. Barrow after visiting hours when Sophia was unlikely to be there.

I opened the door to Dr. Barrow’s rooms; all was dark except for night lights in the wall plugs and the greenish dial faces of the monitors over and alongside his bed. He was stretched under the sheet like a corpse awaiting the sheet to be pulled over its eyes. His eyes were open and he recognized me.

“I am sorry,” he said.

“About what?”

“You went to trouble and peril to get that marijuana and it worked so well,” he said.

“Why are you sorry?”

“I’ve stopped. . . . . . . . . It’s been two days now. . . . . . And I am dying.”

“Why in hell have you stopped?”

He shivered. “I had a visit from my lawyers.”

“So what?”

“They told me I must quit smoking pot immediately.”

“Why for Christ sake?”

He struggled to get the next words out. “ . . . Because I wrote Hillary . . . out of my will.”

He looked at me, saw that I needed further explanation, and he went on with the pain of self-castigation throbbing inside every word.

“The lawyers say that if it is discovered that I smoked marijuana . . . . for any reason . . . at the terminal end of my life, then Hillary’s lawyers can call my will into question on the basis that as a ‘pothead’ my mental competence is in question, and she might be reinstated by court order and get a third of all I’ve given to Sophia and the trusts.”

“So fucking what? Are you willing to puke yourself to death to keep Hillary out?”

“I must take the responsible decision,” he said, and he closed his eyes.

Good as his word, Dr. Barrow was out of the hospital and buried in a family crypt on the grounds of his library in Boston before the week was out. Hillary, as expected, contested the will and won a child’s portion of thirty-three percent on the grounds that for twenty years her mother had systematically and with malice aforethought milked all of the money from Hillary’s custodial gifts and trusts. 

(c) 2010 Ben Luck All Rights Reserved


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