They went every Friday. It was something he looked forward to at the end of a hard day at the end of a hard-earned week. Not something they had to discuss. Five o’clock would come. Flora would put on a nice dress—maybe the pale blue one that uncannily matched the color of her eyes—and he’d pop his gingham fedora off the rack, adjusting it to just the right tilt in the wood-framed mirror in their entrance hall. In the mirror, wearing that hat, he could see himself as he’d once been—an infantryman in the Korean War who viewed the Pusan Perimeter as a line he could singlehandedly hold, whose every lonely desolation was tempered by the knowledge that Flora was thinking of him on the other side of the world. Perhaps, if it was the middle of the night in Taegu, she’d be standing that very moment at the head of her class of young children, absent-mindedly fingering the locket with his photo. He could see with that hat on his head the kid who’d come home from war and taken a job on the assembly line at Frigidaire, moved from there to the sales floor at Sears, eventually turning a small inheritance from his father into his own store. Herbie’s Home Appliance. No snake oil sales contracts. Every machine personally guaranteed for five years. If it breaks, Herbie’s voice declared in his straight-ahead radio ads, we’ll fix it. A store, by the way, that built the nest egg that sent his two girls to college before succumbing, in the end, to the Amazon-dot-comification of America. (How in the hell, he still wondered, could you buy a dishwasher over the Internet?) It never ceased to surprise him, even as it sometimes shortened his breath, that Herbie could still feel like the man he’d once been. That is to say: young. Breathless with anticipation for how his story would unfold—who he would love, what would delight his children, would he ever learn how to tie a Windsor knot? Standing on that side of the mountain looking up instead of this one looking down. He took Flora’s cane from the umbrella stand, handed it to her, hooked his arm under hers so he could help her over the threshold, and out the door they went.
Where they went, where they’d gone every Friday night for as long as he could remember, was Trawlers. Yes, Herbie knew Trawlers was a chain. He was all-too aware. He had seen one recently—dispiritingly—in a strip mall next to a Cheesecake Factory. (This is what he wanted to tell the people at Cheesecake Factory: Cheesecake is not made in a factory. He wanted to go Lloyd Bentsen on them. I’ve worked in a factory, he wanted to say, and you’re no factory.) When Flora had once casually suggested they switch to the closer location, Herbie reminded her that the restaurant they frequented off Boylston, while not technically the first—the first had been a chowder hut in Dorshire in spitting distance of the wharf—was the flagship. The old original, they called it. A distinction lost on Flora that made all the difference in the world to him.
Herbie loved the sculpture of the sea turtles, two babies and a mother, rising magisterially out of the grass by the benches where you waited for a table. He loved Mr. Fenton’s pledge, stamped in bronze on the entrance foyer wall. Fresh fish. No baloney. And the gold-embossed silhouette of the fishing boat on the menu, with the seagulls hovering behind for remnants of the catch. Herbie loved that they had a table, third table on the left on the raised section of the floor under the photo of the up-flipped whale tail, and that Miranda knew to bring margarine along with the dinner rolls. Johnnie Walker for him. Remy Martin, her. And the lobster bisque, with its creamy orange color and tangy hint of sherry. Mostly he loved that Trawlers was theirs. That in a world gone mad with rootlessness, Flora and he still had a place outside their home to call their own.
And maybe that’s why it came as such a shock, that night. For starters, when they arrived, there was another couple sitting at their table. Young—perhaps in their forties—and hopelessly overweight. He could tell by the greedy way in which they perused their menus that they were the kind of couple with limited regard for themselves (but with great regard for anything fried and served on a Kaiser roll with tartar sauce). Moreover, Flora and he were greeted not by Dolly, an old-timer who’d worked the hostess stand for years with grace and humor, but by Andi, a solicitous newbie with a Cheesecake Factory smile who said she was really really sorry about their table and promised another would be available really really soon.
“Really?” Herbie said.
Flora, per her norm, intervened to smooth things over. “That sounds great, thank you, Andi.” She reached and took his elbow, a bit more forcefully than perhaps was necessary—as if it were she who needed to steady him—and led him to a bench.
By the time they were finally seated thirty minutes later, though, Herbie was in a full boil. Their waitress was a man. A nervous, slightly unkempt man with a round “I’m Scott And I’m In Training!” button pinned to his striped shirt, and a disconcerting habit of glancing at the menu as they ordered each item as if to confirm that Trawlers was in fact still offering that particular dish. Herbie, mute with envy, watched Miranda moving purposefully on the floor beyond, placing drinks with brisk authority.
“Where did they find him,” Herbie said, after Scott had closed his flip pad and shuffled back toward the kitchen, menus clamped under his armpit. “My god how much he wrote! What the hell was he writing? I ordered bluefish. He wrote the Magna Carta.”
“He’s new, Herbie. Give him a break. We’re here. Enjoy your Scotch.”
But it was Friday night. Their night. Through a week of Swanson Salisbury steak and Stouffer’s French bread pizza, frozen blintzes and Chinese take-out, Trawlers was all he looked forward to—aside from maybe a Facetime call every few days from Anne, their daughter in California who worked at First Republic, or Jilly, their daughter in Colorado with the grandkids. Flora, of all people, should have understood. No matter that Scott came out promptly with the bisques (and extra packets of oyster crackers, as he’d requested). No matter that his bluefish arrived sizzling on its platter or that the fries were cooked to perfection—crispy and golden brown on the outside; so hot inside from the oil it hurt his teeth. When Scott mixed up their dessert order at the end—inexplicably bringing the brownie a la mode instead of the key lime pie, forcing him both to wait for the pie while his coffee got cold and to bear his wife’s glaring judgment at his evident displeasure—the night, their entire night, was ruined, soup to mints.
It was after eight by the time they got back into the car. They drove in silence for a while, until the silence itself became a noise Herbie could no longer ignore.
“Well,” he said, finally. “That’s it for me. I’m not going back to that place.”
“So fast?” Flora arched her eyebrow. “After all these years, one strike and they’re out?”
“They’re not what they were, Flora,” he said. “It pains me to say it. They’re slipping. They’ve been slipping a while. I mean… In the men’s room, there was no soap in the soap dispensers. And the ketchup! When did they switch to off-brand ketchup?”
“Ketchup is ketchup,” Flora said.
“Ketchup is most definitely not ketchup,” Herbie said. “And by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, dessert was a fiasco.”
“That’s why they gave it to us for free.”
“Not just dessert. The whole meal.”
“My fish was quite good.”
“But the service!” He stuck his tongue out at the brake-lit windshield. “I know he’s in training. I don’t really care. They should’ve put someone with him. Miranda. Anyone. How many dinners will that guy spoil before he figures it out?”
“Oh, Herb,” she said. “If it bothers you so much, write a letter.”
She hadn’t meant it, of course. Or, rather, she’d meant it rhetorically. Write a letter, she’d said, when his fedora came back from the dry cleaner ever-so-slightly smaller. (He’d initially thought he’d picked up someone else’s hat!) Write a letter, she’d said, when the network summarily cancelled the one show left worth watching. What she meant was: Come off it, Herb. There are problems in the world, and then there’s this.
And yet, as they drove home the rest of the way in silence, as he recalled Mr. Fenton’s pledge—Fresh fish. No baloney—he could feel it: the idea, taking hold in him.
He felt he knew Mr. Fenton. Felt Mr. Fenton was in some respects a younger version of himself—a certain kind of business owner for whom a customer’s satisfaction was more important, or at least as important, as the bottom line. He knew Fenton’s story by heart. It was written there in plain ink at the back of the menu. How his grandfather had worked a coal-fired steam trawler in Navagascomb Bay, raising pollock, cod, and monkfish from the icy blue depths. How his granduncle—his grandfather’s older brother—had opened Trawlers Sea Food Restaurant off Boylston Street in 1935 and, guaranteed the freshest catch each morning straight from the dock in Dorshire, the restaurant had grown from a local haunt into a destination. There were no gaudy autographed headshots on the walls of famous people who’d dined there; nothing on the menu named for this bigwig or that. And yet Herbie knew Carl Yastrzemski’s table had been third booth over on the right with a view of the street, and that Red Auerbach always ordered clams-on-a-half shell, ice cold. Fenton’s father, Herbie knew, had taken over from his uncle, adding the signature bisque and lobster roll and initiating first a westward and then a southern expansion. (Newton, Needham, Framingham. Baltimore, Myrtle Beach, Boca Raton.) He knew that on Fenton’s worst days, when it seemed lobster itself had become a commodity, the restaurateur would think of his grandfather standing behind the wheel of that trawler through rain, ice, and gale and remember the fisherman’s simple truism: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Mr. Fenton, Herbie believed, was a kindred spirit.
Yes, Herbie thought, as he pulled into his driveway, casting his headlights high into the eaves of his bungalow. Flora’s absolutely right.
I’ll let Mr. Fenton know. I’ll write him a letter.
He didn’t notice at first. The way he’d started waiting on the mail. Walking to the front door, standing on the stoop, surveying his street for the mail truck. And then: the way his pulse crept up when the mail lady finally did come whistling along, pepper spray clinking against a chain at her waist. Sometimes he was on the stoop to greet her, taking the mail, feigning nonchalance as he rifled through the circulars, coupons, and political junk mail. There was an election coming, in case you were tempted to forget, but Herbie had long ago lost interest. He couldn’t keep the candidates straight anymore. Couldn’t remember which was the philandering elite with the offshore accounts or which was paid by lobbyists in return for a farm bill or which used taxpayers’ money to throw a party attended by a semi-pro football player who might or might not have murdered a rap star. None of them were Eisenhower. Of that he was sure.
Flora urged him not to get his hopes up. Even if Fenton did get Herbie’s letter, she said, he’s not going to respond personally. Flora had ideas about Fenton, too, and they were much different from his. First and foremost, she said, Fenton was busy. And corporate. She fancied Fenton a man who flew around in a private jet with a cell phone clamped to his ear, searching out new locations for his restaurants from the air. Herbie countered that Mr. Fenton had once appeared before Congress to testify about the importance of sustaining North Atlantic fisheries, and, in his spare time, volunteered at soup kitchens and remembered the neediest. Well, she said, a man like that isn’t going to be sitting around writing letters to unhappy customers.
Herbie nodded with his lip out, suppressing a smile. She made sense, Flora. But that was her problem sometimes—making too much sense.
Take Instagram, for example. Their daughter Jilly in Colorado had recently introduced Flora to Instagram, and she’d taken to it with gusto. She’d found and reconnected with a high school girlfriend in Kansas she hadn’t heard from in decades. Liked pictures of the grandkids on the first day of school and tromping through a corn maze. She’d tried to show him how it worked—how she could follow someone by typing in his or her nom de guerre preceded by an “at” sign and they might follow her back. She’d already amassed more than fifty of these so-called followers—Flora called them friends—and suggested he might give it a try. But there weren’t fifty people he wanted to call friends across the four corners of the earth. Fifty? Five, perhaps. He was eighty-two years old!
Flora spoke about social media as an efficient tool for fostering connection and allowing self-expression. All perfectly logical. But it also sailed right past the bigger picture. Could she not see that in just a few short weeks it had turned her into a junkie? One recent morning she’d sat across from him at the kitchen table after serving breakfast and instantly began Instagramming, her glasses reflecting twin cellular squares. When he asked her a question, she’d looked up at him, pale-faced, as if she’d just been jarringly returned from a different physical space. As if the part of her that mattered had not been sitting down to fried eggs in Framingham but tea in Topeka.
He just had a feeling about Fenton. Not something he could easily explain. The way he ran his restaurant. His family’s story. The guarantee in bronze. Who did that anymore? Who stood up and said: You know that thing I screwed up? Well, I screwed it up! In an era when everything everywhere was someone else’s fault, Fenton, Herbie believed, was a throwback—a man who understood the buck stopped with him.
Over time, though, doubt surfaced. Narrowly at first, like a string of bubbles from a scallop. Day after day he checked the mail, and day after day—nothing. A month passed. A month of Friday night dinners at Luigi’s, which was decent but over-crowded and loud, and Flotsam & Jetsam, a gimmicky place Flora liked where all the menu items had an ampersand: Chicken & Rice, Steak & Potatoes, Fish & Chips. Herbie couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Flora had been right. Could his conception of Mr. Fenton have been so wrong? He stopped checking the mail. Congratulated himself on his decision to boycott Trawlers. It was a shell of what it’d once been. A sad and fading husk, basking in the dim glow of its former glory.
And then one afternoon, Flora lurched into the kitchen with the mail, stopped at the edge of the table, and, leaning on her cane, wordlessly handed him the envelope.
When he saw the gold-embossed fishing boat on the upper left-hand corner and the return address—One Trawlers Way, Dorshire, Massachusetts—his heart leapt like a dolphin straight through the surface of the sea. He ignored the slight tremble in his fingers as he inserted his letter-opener and withdrew the single sheet of paper.
“It’s from Fenton,” he said.
“What’s he want with you?”
“He says he’s sorry about our dinner. He liked my letter. He wants to meet us.”
“Wants to… What’d you put in your letter?”
“Nothing. Just what happened. I told him he was slipping.”
“And now he wants to meet you?”
“Us,” Herbie corrected. “He wants us to come down to corporate. In Dorshire. I, for one, think it’s a nice gesture. I’m looking forward to it.”
“You want to go to Dorshire?”
“It’s an hour drive! You act like it’s Guam.”
She eyed him over the tabletop with what almost looked to Herbie like suspicion. “Herb,” she said finally. “What do you hope to get out of it? Out of meeting him?”
Herbie sighed, rather more dramatically than he might’ve if he’d taken a moment to collect himself. “I don’t want a thing from him,” he said. “Not a thing! You don’t always do a thing to get a thing in life, Flora. It’s not always about amassing ‘followers.’ That’s what I’ve been trying to explain. Sometimes, it’s just closing a loop. That’s all. It doesn’t have to be so complicated.”
She put her lips together and let a breath out through her nose. It looked as if she was quite literally chewing on something, daintily, massaging it with her gums.
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay, I’ll go along.”
Herbie’s shoulders un-hunched. His posture slackened. A breath came into his body that made him realize that, over the last six weeks, he’d hardly been breathing at all.
They got lost on the way to Dorshire. Went south on the highway into the marshlands of the Annisquam River when they should’ve gone north along the craggy coastal route toward Navagascomb Bay. But if Herbie’d felt agitated—when he’d asked the gas station attendant in Dorshire for directions on the surface streets, the attendant looked at him blankly and suggested he “Google it”!—that all fell away once they finally turned onto Trawlers Way and saw, squatting at the end of the cul-de-sac, the impressive, four-story, glass and steel corporate headquarters of Trawlers Restaurant & Sea Food.
Herbie might have suspected, under other circumstances, that the street had been named as an act of patronage to a company with a substantial tax basis. (The street sign featured a different font and background color than the other city signs, more like something you’d see in Disney World than in a hard-scrabble fishing town.) And, yet, now that Flora and he were actually standing there on the sidewalk gaping up at dark-mirrored windows that seemed to contain the sun itself as a component of architecture, he had to admit there was something nice about it, too—honoring a business that had given much to the community in the way of jobs and dining pleasure with a street. Not graft, Herbie thought, so much as gratitude.
Herbie knew (everyone knew) that Mr. Fenton had recently purchased Galloway’s Fish Sticks and was now, in addition to running his many restaurants, selling pre-packaged items in the supermarket freezer aisle. The first time he’d seen Trawlers Rods in a fogged up freezer case at Costco, he’d wondered: Is nothing sacred? Now, though, as they stood in an entrance atrium brimming with glass-blown light, as a lengthy woman in a black-checked skirt and blue leather jacket strode purposefully to greet them, clutching a clipboard to her chest, he could see he’d been wrong to judge. Hadn’t Herbie himself expanded in his heyday? Taking over the lease next door, knocking down a wall and doubling the size of his showroom floor? Who was he to second-guess a man like Fenton, who knew his own business, after all, and could see better than anyone else what was coming around the bend?
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Jenks!” the woman said brightly, pulling up before them. “Welcome to One-T-Way. We’re so glad you’ve come!”
She spoke with what sounded to Herbie like a British accent. Janx, she’d said, somehow managing to compress and recompose their surname into another name altogether. She put a hand on Flora’s shoulder and guided her down a marble step, watching attentively as she planted her cane.
The woman’s name was Devon, she said. She worked in communications, and she’d been pressed into service to give them their tour.
Herbie, who had been following behind Devon and Flora, stopped short. “I thought Mr. Fenton was giving us the tour,” he said.
“He would’ve done.” She glanced back over her shoulder, straight-lipped. “Something’s come up, unfortunately.”
“We will see him, though? Right? Mr. Fenton? We’ve come a long way.”
She turned and smiled, reaching up and tugging at the lapel of his sports coat, dusting off his shoulders. “You certainly have, Mr. Jenks,” she said. “Now, if you’ll just follow me.”
But Herbie didn’t know how to take that. “You certainly have” meaning they would or wouldn’t be seeing Fenton?
He was distracted as she walked them through the corporate kitchen. Where the magic happens, she said. Where they’d invented their signature dishes. Oysters on the half shell with ceviche. Lobster bisque. Flora dutifully stopped to gaze at the framed black-and-white photos lining the walls of a long hallway—Fenton’s grandfather crouched on a dock, arms on his knees, cod splayed out around him like an African necklace; his granduncle smiling broadly on the steps of a ramshackle chowder hut; his father, shovel in hand, surrounded by local dignitaries at a groundbreaking in Atlanta. She pointed at a photo of three generations of Fentons wearing identical captain’s hats and marveled at the family resemblance. But Herbie moved quickly from one to the next, not really taking them in. He was going over Fenton’s letter in his head. The invitation that’d been extended. And, indeed, by the time they reached what Devon referred to as “the crown jewel”—a scale wooden replica of the original trawler held aloft on a brass stand in a gleaming glass case—Herbie had found firm footing. Of course they would be seeing Fenton! Fenton himself would no doubt be dismayed by any suggestion to the contrary.
“You’ll both need to sign this before we start,” Devon said, handing Herbie the clipboard and pen as she ushered them along the hall. “It’s a standard release.”
“I’m sorry… a what?”
“A release,” she said, leading them around a corner back into the atrium, pressing a button to call the elevator. “For the filming.”
“Mr. Fenton never mentioned anything about any filming.”
“Didn’t he?” Devon said. “It’s nothing, really. Just need your Johnny Hancock.”
Herbie read the first sentence. He stopped, went back to the start, and read it again, straining to concentrate. The elevator doors slid open and she herded them inside. He held the pen shakily in his hand. The elevator twitched and jerked them skyward. “I don’t generally like to sign anything without my attorney present,” he said.
At this, she threw her head back and laughed, open-mouthed and uproarious—“You’re a hoot, Mr. Jenks,” she said—though Herbie had absolutely no idea what the hell was so funny. And then the elevator dinged and the door opened, ejecting them into a plush lobby with a long black leather sofa that L’d around a low glass coffee table. No sooner had they exited than a man came at them with a camera perched on his shoulder flanked by another positioning a boom mic over their heads. A bright rectangle flared and when Herbie shut his eyes, his own private darkness was filled with crisscrossing streamers of garish orange light.
Herbie’s chest tightened. He was trying to assimilate all this. This wasn’t anything, after all. He’d once charged up Triangulation Hill in 105-degree heat, staring down KPA rifles to prevent the enemy from cutting the supply line to Seoul. The brush on that hill was tall as a man! It was Flora, though, when he turned and saw her at his side, who made him wonder if this whole adventure had been a mistake. She looked wobbly on her cane. He thought of the defibrillator doctors had implanted in her chest. The fragile wire dipping down into her ventricle. The fickle electrical currents that would keep her alive or kill her that he didn’t understand. He should be able to do something to help her. He wanted to. He just couldn’t figure out what.
“Would somebody please get Mrs. Jenks a chair?”
He recognized the voice from the TV commercials even before he saw him. And, sure enough, when Herbie looked up, there he was, striding toward them between cameraman and couch. Shorter than he seemed on TV. More square. But projecting that same confidence. Not the matador. The bull.
“People, could we please chill out and give them a little space here? Mrs. Jenks, can I get you a glass of water?”
“They haven’t signed the release.”
“Who gives a damn about the release!” Fenton said, taking the clipboard from Herbie and thrusting it back at Devon. “If it’s okay with all of you, I’d like not to worry about legal for, oh, I don’t know, three minutes?”
It’s no exaggeration to say it: Herbie felt, standing in the presence of this much younger man, no less than delivered. It was something like the feeling he’d once had walking toward that high, wrought-iron gate, scanning the waiting crowd, looking from one face to another, thinking not her… not her… not her… and fearing for a fleeting instant he wouldn’t recognize her, or worse, that she’d changed her mind—she hadn’t come—and then: There!
He’d been this close to death. One night, on patrol along the Naktong, a KPA sniper firing from across the river took out the soldier next to him in line with a single shot. Had that sniper twitched his finger a fraction of a fraction of an inch at 100 yards, that bullet would have been his! And now, as if in a dream, there she stood. Waiting just as he’d pictured so many times before. Stoic. Blinking. Lovely in life’s highest light. It had taken every bit of breath he could find and sequester not to fall sobbing to his knees.
“I’m fine,” Flora said. “No need to fuss over me, Mr. Fenton. Thank you.”
“Call me Bill, please,” he said, hooking her arm, leading them forward into his office.
“Well, okay,” Flora said. “Bill, then.”
He closed the door behind them and pressed a button, initiating the slow, motorized roll of a shade, dropping it down over the glass office wall until the three of them were fully, privately ensconced in Mr. Fenton’s office.
“Please,” he said, gesturing at side-by-side leather armchairs.
His desk was spare, gleaming and black, the hood of a Cadillac. At the corner, Herbie noticed, stood a mini-replica of the sea turtles sculpture he so loved, and he was about to remark upon it when Devon returned with two glasses of water. Herbie sipped his, looking up at Fenton. Boy oh boy, he thought. The man is tired. There could be no two ways about it. The bags under his eyes were filled with channel silt.
Listening to Fenton speak, though—it was like opening an old book you once loved but maybe had forgotten. A book you could lose yourself inside.
After the usual pleasantries, Fenton explained that they didn’t get many letters anymore, and if they did, they weren’t letters like Herbie’s. Someone in marketing had flagged it, and he was glad they had. He was touched by Herbie’s description of his ritual Friday night dinners with Flora. Moved by what’d he said about his military service—about what he’d learned, how those lessons still held truth for him today. His father, too, had served in Korea, he said. US 5th Air Force. Maybe that was part of it. Why he was so upset they’d been so thoroughly let down. It touched a nerve, he said. A beautiful letter.
“It was from the heart, Mr. Fenton.”
“Bill, please,” Fenton said. “And I know it, Herbie. I know it.”
“Hey,” Herbie said—because it was worrying him; because it was still very much on his mind—“what’s all this about a movie?”
Fenton waved at the air in front of him as if the gesture itself could expel the very thought. The crew, he explained, was “in-house.” They’d been buzzing around for weeks making a PR video. Someone in marketing gets a brilliant idea and suddenly we’re all on set, he said.
“We’d really prefer not to be in any movie, though,” Herbie said.
“And you won’t be,” Fenton said. “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want to be either.”
Herbie felt himself exhale. Fenton, as if in response, leaned forward, put his elbows on the table and pressed ten fingers together, making a bridge of his thumbs upon which he rested his chin, fingers over his nose. When he next spoke his words came out under that canopy of fingers, as if speaking through a megaphone of his own devising.
“I don’t have to tell you what’s coming, Herb,” he began. “We’ve got a presidential around the corner, and it looks like the wrong guy’s gonna win. Everyone’s banking on higher taxes. Wall Street’s bent out of shape. Crystal ball says interest rates are going up again. It’s about to get a lot more expensive to borrow. We’ve got a few deals in the pipeline right now, as you know, and our shareholders are pushing like hell to get ’em done. I know I don’t have to explain it to you.”
Herbie concentrated, trying to discern how all this talk pertained to him. He nodded, eyes narrowed, pulse thrumming in his temple.
“Herbie,” Fenton said, finally. “I was wondering—I’m frankly a little hesitant to ask you this, but I know you won’t mind. I’m wondering if you wouldn’t consider something. The fact is there’s a risk to us, expanding this fast. To our image. At the end of the day what we’ve got is our brand. People still think of us first and foremost as a fish restaurant, founded 1925. And well they should. It’s the restaurant that fuels the freezer aisle, not the other way around. We want people to know even as we grow that we’re still—how did you put it in your letter?” He reached over and picked up the trifolded paper—Herbie hadn’t even noticed it there—upon which Herbie’d typed his original complaint. “‘That place down the street where service and dining experience still matter.’” Fenton smiled. “That’s good, Herb. Better than a lot of what’s written around here, frankly. And what I’m wondering—my team thinks I’m crazy to ask you this, given your recent experience—but I just had a feeling about you from your letter… There’s a reporter working on a story. From the Globe. Business page. A story about growth. They’ve asked us to connect them with a regular, someone who really gets it. And when I read your letter, Herb—well, I thought you might have something worthwhile to say.”
Fenton glanced at Flora. Did he sense something in her stone-faced silence?
“I’d want you to speak honestly, of course,” he added. “If you’re comfortable.”
Herbie rocked gently back in his chair, holding fast to the armrests.
“It’s not everyone who can tell a reporter they’ve been coming every Friday for twenty years, Herb,” Fenton said, shifting his jaw. “What do you say?”
And Herbie saw it right away. The opportunity Fenton was giving him. Fenton needed him. Needed his help. To remind people what Trawlers was all about. At its core. Its roots as a family company. Its singular commitment to quality. And, sitting in that chair, Herbie felt a surge of purpose unlike anything he’d felt going all the way back to the war. Here was Mr. Fenton—a man who bought and sold companies—asking him for help. Herbie Jenks, retired appliance dealer.
It had seemed more and more to Herbie these days that it was impossible to have any real impact in the world. How could you do it? There were islands of plastic floating in the South Pacific you could see from space, and the best we could do was separate our recycling streams? The world was overheating, they said—not a car radiator, the world!—and what were we supposed to do about it? Install weather stripping around our doors and eat fewer hamburgers! And yet this. This wasn’t impossible. This wasn’t something you needed a solar shield, the Chinese, and a sixty-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to make happen.
Herbie could do it. Of course he would! Herbie could do this himself.
Not surprisingly, Flora was skeptical. Already on the ride home from One-T-Way she’d begun pointing out that Fenton’s motives weren’t entirely altruistic. And in the days before Herbie was to return to Dorshire for the interview, she somberly counseled him to weigh his words and remember his own high standard. When the morning arrived, she walked him to his car, her cane stamping rubber circles on rain-wet pavers, and asked him the question he sensed she’d been building toward all week. Are you sure you want to go through with this?
He was. He hadn’t been so sure of anything in a very long time.
The interview went as well as Herbie expected. Better. The reporter was professional, courteous, and interested in what Herbie had to say. Herbie even learned a thing or two. Who knew the Globe had been launched in 1872 by the founder of a retail store that was acquired by Macy’s? Or that the first business manager was a veteran of the Civil War!
The next time Flora and he dined at Trawlers, that first Friday after the article came out, they were greeted with a stout round of applause from the hostesses (one of whom recognized him from the photo in the paper), and later, Miranda asked winningly for their autograph. Dinner that night—no bones about it—was as sumptuous as it had ever been. Everything came out exactly as it should on plates the servers gripped with white napkins. You scorched your fingers when you dug in to open up the rolls, releasing hot sheets of steam. Flora splurged on the lobster, bowing her head so Miranda could tie the plastic bib around her neck, using the pick to dig every luscious morsel of meat from the legs and tail. As they left that night, moving slowly past the throngs of people waiting to be seated, Herbie was flooded with pride, as if he himself had suggested they come. “Try the bisque,” he told a young couple perusing the menu, feeling daring. “You won’t be sorry.” When he got home and placed his hat on the rack, he considered the spot next to the mirror where he planned to hang the Globe article when it came back from the frame shop. The article’s photo, taken on Fenton’s office balcony, featured Fenton and Herbie shaking hands, a quarter-inch of ocean just visible above their outstretched arms, over the caption: Herbie Jenks, a Trawlers regular, with C.E.O. Bill Fenton. “A restaurant this good has staying power,” Jenks says.
Their lives were different than they’d once been, maybe. But that wasn’t all bad. That’s what he was trying to make Flora see. There were plenty of simple joys left to be had.
Was it the following month when things really began to change? The month after that? One day his fries came out wimpy and undercooked, pale as a corpse’s fingers. They mixed up Flora’s sides, bringing a baked potato instead of the pilaf. Another time his fish came out barely a degree north of room temperature. (Miranda seemed particularly frazzled that day, and Herbie didn’t have the heart to send it back.) The specials, which had once rotated with regularity, became static and uninspired: a card tucked forlornly into a wilted plastic flap. The menus themselves bore signs of diminishment: greasy and ketchup-stained across the clear, laminated fronts, as if handled by spoiled children and thereafter left unwashed. One night, just a few months after the article ran, they were greeted by a new server—a gothic waif with a golden nose ring and a sheaf of purple hair obscuring her eye. Dora, this was. Frail and unhealthy Dora. When they asked about Miranda, Dora eyed them quizzically, scanning the menu over Herbie’s shoulder. And that was that. They never saw Miranda again.
Flora wanted to try somewhere else. She’d heard good things about Flotsam & Jetsam lately. Apparently, the Sweet & Sour Chicken Wings were sensational. But Herbie scoffed. He told her she was over-stating Trawlers’ demise. Sure, they’d had a few less-than-stellar meals. Maybe it wasn’t exactly as it had been in the good old days. But the good old days weren’t always good, either. Everything from the past has a certain shine to it now, even the war, and that was never anything but fear and death and discomfort. Besides, he told her, Mr. Fenton has a lot on his plate just now. He’d been following the news pretty closely—Trawlers had just purchased Sara’s Crab Cakes and was said to be eyeing India Delight, a line of TV dinners that, at first blush, might not seem a natural fit for Trawlers, saag paneer and all, but at the end of the day the deal did have its own internal logic. The ethnic TV dinners were one freezer case over from the fish sticks at Costco. It was, Herbie explained, a horizontal expansion.
Herbie wrote Fenton another letter, giving him a “courtesy heads up” on a few things he’d noticed. The election, though, had come and gone, and Herbie was pretty sure the wrong guy had won. Trawlers stock was down. And while Flora considered it an affront, Herbie never truly expected Fenton to write back a second time. He was, as Flora herself had said, a very busy man.
And then one Friday they went to Trawlers—a busy night, patrons spilling out of the restaurant, restless kids playing tag around benches where people sat waiting for tables. It took an eternity to get their drinks that night, and more than an hour after they ordered, with Flora’s patience wearing thin, Herbie hailed a passing waitress and inquired about their dinners. Confused, she turned and vanished into the kitchen. Across the table, Flora glared at the double kitchen doors with a furrowed brow. After some time a man who said he was the manager—they’d never seen him before in their lives—appeared tableside and told them he was deeply sorry and somewhat embarrassed, but their server had quit mid-shift without telling anyone and their orders had never been placed. He would, he said, be sending a new server by shortly, along with a round of free drinks. Then he, too, turned and left.
“That’s it,” Flora said suddenly, pushing her chair back as she stood. “I’ve had enough.”
“Flora!” Herbie glanced around nervously. “You’re making a scene.”
“What I want to know, Herb,” she said, steadying herself with her hand on the top rail of her chair, “is if you believe it.”
“Please, will you lower your voice? Believe what?”
“What you told the newspaper. About Fenton. Trawlers. It’s a good story. It sells. But is it honest?”
“Of course it’s honest!” Herbie said. “We’ve been coming here twenty years!”
Flora looked at him, hard-eyed. With her lips pressed together, she pushed out her chin and shook her head.
“Herb,” she said, removing her purse from the ear of the chair, slinging it over her shoulder, “there’s fresh fish, and then there’s baloney.”
“Wait! Where are you going?”
“Home,” she said, reaching for her cane.
“We haven’t had our meals yet!”
“Perhaps we never will.”
It’s true it was hard at first. Going to Trawlers alone. He felt embarrassed about it. As if someone might recognize him and think Flora had, after all these years, up and left him. Or worse: that she had died. He dreaded the thought of having to explain to someone why she no longer came with him. Fortunately, no one ever asked.
Often, as he sat alone Friday nights on the raised platform looking over the railing at the hustle and bustle below, he found himself thinking not about Mr. Fenton but about Mr. Fenton’s grandfather. The original fishing captain. Herbie always pictured him standing alone at the helm of his vessel, watching the horizon for telltale signs of activity: white dapples on the surface, gulls hovering close in the sky, hugging the sea. Perhaps he noticed through the salt-encrusted windshield the dark dance of a storm on the horizon. Maybe he was a little lonely, standing there, thinking about the many hours still to go before home.
Using the side of his fork, Herbie cut a piece of bluefish. It was tender and flaky, the flesh separating easily, perhaps a little greasy but definitely not overdone. He was pleasantly surprised by the burst of heat in his mouth. The tangy flavor. “Magnificent!” he told the waitress when she returned (promptly!) to check on him, kissing his fingertips and flinging his five fingers at the ceiling as if releasing a small bird. “My compliments to the chef!”
Herbie closed his eyes as he savored the taste. He imagined the first drops of rain landing all at once, slashing across the captain’s windshield with a sound like a shook tambourine. His thoughts travelled from there to Flora and what she might be doing at home. Puttering around the sink, perhaps. Cleaning up after dinner. Or, probably, Instagram.
He wasn’t worried, though. He’d outlast this storm. It’s no small thing, he thought, to find a place down the street where service and dining experience still matter. A restaurant this good has staying power!
She’d be back with him. She’d be back with him, soon enough.