Mr. & Mrs. Bakewell

By Willie Watt

In her cerulean gown and carmine lipstick, Mrs. Bakewell looked good enough to eat, and Mr. Bakewell, who was dying, experienced a rush of halcyon pleasure to see her so well. It was his wife’s sixtieth birthday. They dined at a ritzy French place to mark the occasion: L’évier de Cuisine.

“Ovechkin is wonderful, of course,” she was saying.

“Ovechkin’s prose is third-rate at best. Like so many of his countrymen, he eulogizes a past that never existed,” said Mr. Bakewell, cutting into his foie gras

Mrs. Bakewell made a sour face. Candelabra fluttered. Champagne fizzed in tuliped crystal. “Drugov, then. Or Inessa Zaitsev.”

The liver was creamy and muscular, and Mr. Bakewell chewed with slow, dutiful relish. “Mikhail Drugov, mein Liebling, is a spineless party goon who writes about sex like someone who’s never had any.” He swabbed clean a balsamic speck at the corner of his mouth with his serviette. “As for Frau Zaitsev, I hazard only that Pushkin weeps.”

Mrs. Bakewell’s expression soured further. Of all her husband’s conjugal habits, she hated most this inability to notice the small, cardinal shifts in a conversation’s temperament when elbows-deep in one of those famous literary broadsides of his. 

“When I consider how far the once-great tradition of Gogol and Tolstoy has fallen, it renders me physically unwell.” 

“Well, I think Drugov is delightful.”

“Imagine if the French capitulated to such rotgut.”

The waiter—a handsome Basque with gold-flecked eyes, wearing a cummerbund of mauve silk—approached to ask how he might be of assistance. Mrs. Bakewell sculled the champagne in her flute. With a nimble flourish, the glass was gone.

“There’s Dobrow, of course. Surely you wouldn’t consider My Life in Purgatory ‘third rate’?” 

“I would, and I do,” said Mr. Bakewell, spearing another mouthful.

“Bocharov?”

“Insufferably pretentious.”

Mrs. Bakewell laced her fingers together and set her chin on the platform. “It’s pointless to ask, I suppose. But what about Reshetnikov?”

“Katherine or Samuel?”

“Samuel.”

“Expat,” he said, chewing. “Doesn’t count.”

More champagne arrived. Mr. Bakewell, savoring his final morsel of foie gras, asked the good-looking boy if he might see a dessert menu.

“There must be at least one Russian this past century whose work you esteem not utter crap,” said Mrs. Bakewell.

Stifling a belch, the husband answered, “Bulgakov I like. And, of course, there’s always Nabokov.”

“Suddenly expats do count.” 

“*Mein Liebchen*,” said Mr. Bakewell, affecting the weary tone of a scholar addressing his lousy student, “of the great man’s seventeen novels, fully *nine* were penned in Russian. I’d hardly consider him anglicized.”

Mrs. Bakewell, overcome, swallowed half of her bubbles in a single dram. “You’re the expert, dear.” 

Reedy accordion Muzak filled a dense silence. At long last, Mr. Bakewell noticed the grim set of his wife’s jaw.

“Is everything all right, my love?”

The Basque returned bearing a pocketbook menu with rose-gold trim. Mrs. Bakewell ordered a third glass. The titanium wedding band felt unusually tight on her finger. 

“It’s just,” Mrs. Bakewell began. The spotless dining hall seemed suddenly distant and overbright, like a summer’s horizon beneath ocean sky. “It’s just we haven’t got much time, is all. And I wish to God you wouldn’t spend so much of it making me feel like some kind of insect.”

The effect upon Mr. Bakewell was immediate. His bright eyes narrowed to points. The great gray scalp—now three-months bald—furrowed as if at some terrible odor. 

“You promised not to,” he growled.

“I know. And I’m sorry. I love hearing you talk about your work. It’s just—”

“Don’t lie, dushen’ka—my little Vera. You despise my work. You always have.”

“It’s just that I don’t want to resent you. Not now.”

“What was your phrase again? ‘All that Freudian guff about sex and death?’”

The ring had been his mother’s, a wedding gift. Mrs. Bakewell worried at the band, trying to let in some air for the mottled flesh. Thirty-nine years, fifty weeks, and two days—she marveled at the dreamy, dizzy fact of it.

“I’m so proud of you.” Her voice was a whimpering rasp.

“They’re one and the same, you know. Sex, death. Headlong sprints toward oblivion.” 

Mrs. Bakewell reached her cold hand across the table. Her husband’s grip was clammy, feverish. He was so beautiful. His suffering so outrageously, unthinkably noble.

“I know you haven’t wanted to touch me in ages,” she said. “It’s intolerable, not knowing how many days are left. All I know—*really* know, in the raw pit of my chest—is that whatever we’ve got, I want to spend it with you. Not *around* you. Not *near* you. *With* you. Can’t you understand that at all?”

The pale notch of his wife’s throat always had seemed, to Mr. Bakewell, very singular and fine. He stared at it now, took a fortifying breath. “These past months, I’ve simply come to recognize a preference for the company of books.”

Mrs. Bakewell’s eyes fell to the parquet. The handsome Basque rematerialized, asking about dessert.


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