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36

WHAT BRIAN MISSED most was the evenings alone. It had been fun, in those days, to come back to the apartment from the cable station before six, futz around with his music, browse in his cookbooks, prepare tonight's dinner in a slow and leisurely fashion, and know that, probably after ten o'clock, he'd get that call: "I'm on my way." He'd turn up the heat under the pots or in the oven, bring out tonight's wine and a couple of glasses and be ready when she walked in the front door.

Being fired from Feinberg had been bad for Fiona but ultimately it had been worse for Brian, because she was over it by now but he was never going to be. He'd never have those evenings to himself, ever again. Or the sense of freedom they had given him, in more ways than one.

As he well knew, it was the irregularity of her days that had made the regularity of his own easier to stand. What had attracted him to both cartooning and cooking in the first place was that both were art, not science. He could cook but he couldn't bake, because baking was chemistry; get one little thing wrong and you've ruined it. The same with cartooning; he couldn't do an exact face or even an exact building, but he could give you the feel of it, and that's what made it art.

What he liked about art was that there were no rules. He liked living with no rules. The regularity of his mornings and evenings struck him as too uncomfortably close to living within the rules, so he'd been lifted by Fiona's goofy hours; they'd freed him from the temporal rules by osmosis. But he would of course never tell her that her being fired had taken that pleasure out of his life.

Besides, he was happy for her. She had a better job now, which meant not just more money and better hours but more entertaining things for her to talk about over dinner, Mrs. Wheeler being an endlessly diverting character. He wished sometimes he could figure out a way to turn her into a cartoon and sell it to the station, or maybe some other channel further up the animation food chain. He was creative in some ways, but not in that way, and he regretted it.

Now that they had these longer evenings together, another question was what to do to fill the time between getting home and actually sitting down to dinner, which couldn't possibly happen until two or three hours later. Much of the time was spent with Fiona detailing Mrs. W's latest follies while he worked on dinner, and the rest of the time they'd been filling in with games: Scrabble, backgammon, cribbage.

But the main topic of their evenings was Livia Northwood Wheeler, who was so rich the thought of it made Brian's teeth hurt. She was also apparently as ditzy and over-the-top as any cartoon character you could think of. Brian wanted to meet her. He wanted to laugh, discreetly, at her antics, and he wanted from time to time to find some of her money in his pockets. If he could arrange the meeting, he was sure he could arrange the rest. If only he could arrange the meeting.

Evening after evening, while shifting tiles or moving pegs or arranging tiles into words, he'd drop little hints that he'd like to meet the fabulous Mrs. W Why not invite her to dinner? "I'm not that bad a cook."

"You're a wonderful cook, as you very well know. 'Quixotic' is a word, isn't it? But we couldn't ask her here, Brian."

"Why not? Maybe she'd enjoy slumming."

"Mrs. W? I really doubt that."

If it were summer, or the weather were at least decent, he could suggest a picnic, in Riverside Park, or even on the roof of this building, which had some pretty good views and which some of the tenants did occasionally use for picnics and small parties, though Frisbee had been banned after a couple of unfortunate incidents.

But now, at last, this Monday in March, he had his opportunity, or he thought he did. All day at the station the preparations had been under way, and that's where he got the idea, and could hardly wait to get home, and for Fiona to get home, so he could try it on her. Maybe this time it would happen. But he should be cool about it, not just burst out with the idea, or she'd likely be turned off.

So this evening, though they were both home before six, and moving cribbage pegs inexorably onward by half past, he waited until that game was finished — she won — to even broach the subject. "Guess what's happening this weekend," he said.

She gave him a funny look. Nothing happened on the weekend in March, as all the world knew. Unless St. Patrick's Day came on any day remotely close to the weekend, being any day except Wednesday, as everyone also knew, and as at the moment was not the case. So, "Happening?" she inquired.

"It's the March Madness party at the station," he told her, with a big happy grin.

So there was to be an occurrence on the weekend in March after all, though it didn't actually occur in, or anywhere near, New York City. It was Spring Break, the annual pilgrimage of all America's undergraduate scholars to Florida to take seminars on noncommitment.

Spring Break was a big deal for Brian's station, GRODY, because it homed right in on their target audience. One time, Fiona had asked him, "Who does watch that station?" and he'd answered, "The eighteen-to-nineteen-and-a-half-year-old males, an extremely important advertising demographic," and she'd said, "That explains it," whatever that meant.

In any event, GRODY annually marked Spring Break with its March Madness party, at a rented party place down in Soho, limited to station staff and advertisers and local press and cable company minor employees and good friends and whoever else happened to hear about it. All attendees were encouraged to come costumed as one of the cartoon characters from the station, and many did. Brian's Reverend Twisted costume was kept in the back of the closet to be brought out lovingly and hilariously every year, an old if unusual friend. "Oh, I hope it still fits," he always said, which was his March Madness joke.

But now Fiona began to throw cold water on his idea even before she'd heard it, saying, with an exaggerated sigh, "Oh. I suppose we have to go."

"Have to go? Come on, Fiona, it's fun, you know it is."

"The first couple of times," she said, "it was fun, like visiting a tribe way up the Amazon that had never been marked by civilization."

"Listen—"

"But after a while, Brian," she said, "it becomes just a teeny little bit less fun."

"You never—"

"I'm not saying we won't go," she said. "I'm just saying I'm not as excited about it as I used to be. Brian, March Madness at GRODY does not hold many surprises for me any more."

He knew an opening when he heard one. "Listen," he said, very eager, as though the thought had just this second come to him. "I know how to put the zing back in the old March Madness."

The look she gave him was labeled Skepticism. "How?"

"Invite Mrs. W."

She stared at him as though he'd suddenly grown bat wings on the sides of his head. "Do what?"

"Watch her watching them," he explained, waving his arms here and there. "You know she's never seen anything like that in her life."

"Yes, I do know that," Fiona said.

"Come on, Fiona," he said. "You know I want to meet her, and there's never a place that's just right."

"And March Madness is just right?"

"It is. She'll know ahead of time it's a freak show, you'll explain the whole thing to her, a world she never even suspected existed."

"And wouldn't want to know exists."

"Fiona, invite her." Brian spread his hands above the cribbage board, a supplicant. "That's all I'm asking. Explain what it is, explain how your friend — that's me — wants to meet her, explain it's a goof and we promise to leave the instant she's had enough."

"Any of it would be more than enough, Brian."

Brian did an elaborate shrug. "If she says no," he said, "then that's that. I won't ever mention it again. But at least ask her. Will you do that much?"

"She would think," Fiona said, "I'd lost my mind."

"You'll say it was my idea, your goofy boyfriend's idea. Come on, Fiona. Ask her, will you? Please?"

Fiona sat back, frowning into the middle distance, her fingers tap-tapping on the table beside the cribbage board. Brian waited, afraid to push any more, and at last she gave a kind of resigned sigh and said, "I'll try."

Delighted, he said, "You will? Fiona, you'll really ask her?"

"I said I would," Fiona said, sounding weary.

"Thank you, Fiona," Brian said.


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