The idea was to take their friend Stuart away for his birthday. They’d been talking about it for some time. On Sunday mornings, when the four men met for brunch, they’d say, We gotta plan something for you, pal. Something big this year. Before social security kicks in!
In the deepest part of a Chicago winter, as their complexions grayed, nicked jaws reddened, skin cracked around lips, spots on their hands emerged in ways that embarrassed and surprised them, they daydreamed about it. This wasn’t just going to be a birthday present for Stuart, or merely a weekend trip for themselves, but part of a convalescence. Stuart’s son had died a year ago. Oh, perhaps it was already two years. A boy—Tommy. He had been in his thirties, just as their own children were now. They’d all grown up together, raised in the same suburban neighborhood, kept safe.
Among their children, Tom’s youth had been something remarkable, a star athlete who had enjoyed a kind of celebrity their own children could never have hoped to achieve. And didn’t. During those great years, you would hear his name whispered at the local diner, at parades, in large homes. His adult life, well, it had proved somewhat disappointing, but Stuart still spoke of him when they gathered as if he was a hot prospect, and none of them could blame him.
Finally, in March, Ron—a salesman for a restaurant-rewards program—announced he’d won a sales contest and a weekend trip to Las Vegas. They’d only have to pay for airfare, meals, and whatever gambling they wanted to do.
It was decided quickly, too quickly in hindsight, but Stuart seemed happy about it, and they all got approval from their wives, who encouraged them to do it: it’d be good for all of them and something special for Stuart.
Only, around the same time they booked their flights for late summer, and Ron phoned in restaurant reservations, Matt began to witness a certain tightening in his business, which was construction. A $35 million job, a new school that he had [End Page 191] the southern review been hired to build, fell through, the funding yanked at the last minute. Within one month, two other jobs his firm had been working on had been canceled. By May, all over the city, buildings stood half-built. Giant cranes loomed in pits, skeletal structures sat exposed, and lean, wide flange beams scraped the wind.
He hadn’t seen a contraction like this since 1975, when he was a young engineer, just come to the city. That recession had put the old-timers’ lights out, even the toughest old-timers who freely joked they’d fuck their own mothers for a million dollars, but he was too young then to be fearful of it. You forgot that such things could happen.
By July, the jobs that his firm had been working on concluded, checks paid with a sigh of relief. But no new work could be secured, and though Matt held his two dozen employees as long as he could, paid their insurance, his accountant admonished him, saying he couldn’t continue that way. Already he was overex-tended, and he’d have to dip into his retirement if he wanted to make payroll. So, he switched them to job shares, and finally began releasing them, some of whom he’d employed ten, fifteen years, since he started his own firm.
His daughter, Maggie—twenty-seven, a teacher in Los Angeles—was planning a wedding. Matt spoke to her after his wife, Amy, got off the phone with her. Amy’d not said anything to Maggie about his business.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said.
“Hey. How are you?”
“Really, really busy. But I’m good. I think things are coming together. We booked the band. Mom told you, right?”
“She did. I hope you can relax a little.”
Maggie sighed. “It’s too much, to be honest. Nick says that I need to calm down. I think he’s dreamed of a big wedding more than I have.”
“I know that. But...