‘Each year of high school,’ my father said, ‘at the beginning of each year, I’ll take you and your buddies out for a night. You can tell me all the new cuss words and we’ll swap dirty jokes.’
‘How many buddies?’ I asked.
‘Oh, say six,’ he said. ‘And tell them black tie.’
That year, the first year, he booked out the Empire Room. We sat and rustled in borrowed suits as he pored over the wine menu and despatched a fleet of waiters. I watched him shake out his cuffs and smile at all my rustling friends and make outrageous small-talk about the female teachers at our school.
Eric Saunders scowled at me from across the table.
‘Your dad must be pretty rich,’ he said.
‘I guess,’ I said. He lived in England now with his new wife and a new batch of kids. I never saw him on any of the important days.
‘How come?’ Eric Saunders said. ‘How come he’s so rich? What does he do?’
‘He’s a psychotherapist,’ I said. ‘I guess he’s just really good at it. Or maybe he has really rich clients.’
Eric Saunders lived in a state house down the other end of town. There was a rusted shell of a truck sinking into the long grass of the front lawn, and his mum was always screaming. Nobody liked going to Eric Saunders’ house. It gave you a headache and a hopeless feeling.
We both turned to look at my father down the length of the long white table.
‘So Morris,’ he was saying, leaning right over and stroking his lapel, ‘what is the most widespread cause of paedophilia in this country?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Morris shyly.
‘Sexy kids,’ said my father. Morris let out a frightened giggle. His hand flew to his throat to smooth his borrowed tie. My father saw me watching him across the table and smiled and raised his glass. It shone like a ruby through his fingers.
‘To hindsight,’ he said.
We were drunk after the first glass. My buddies clapped my father on the shoulder and fed him olives and called him a rascal and called him Ted. Eric Saunders flared an angry red under his pressed clean collar. I sat at the foot of the table and grinned like an idiot and slapped the table whenever my father was outrageous. ‘How do you give a priest a vasectomy?’ my father said. ‘Kick the choirboy in the back of the head.’
My buddies laughed and laughed. I slapped the table.
And then my father leaned back in his chair and pushed his plate away and said, ‘I am going to tell you boys a secret.’
We all hushed at once. Morris put down his fork. My father said, ‘I am going to tell you boys how to make a million dollars.’
Eric Saunders was pressing his hands together tight in his lap, so tight that his knuckles shook. He looked strange. I thought that maybe that he had drunk too much and he needed to throw up.
My father touched his fingertips to his lapels and ran his tongue over his lip very slowly. ‘Listen closely to what I say, boys,’ he said. ‘Now. There is one kid at your school this year who is going to die.’
He smiled at us, his pale gaze flicking around the table at each face in turn. He lingered on Eric Saunders for a moment, then passed him by. ‘Maybe he’s going to drive too fast, drink too much, maybe he’s going to play with guns, whatever, but there’s one kid who’s going to die.’
He speared an olive and held it up.
‘Did you boys know,’ he said, ‘that you can take out life insurance on a person without them knowing?’
‘And the premiums on school kids,’ my father continued, ‘are really, really low. Provided they don’t have any reasons to think these kids are going to die. You can take out a million-dollar life insurance policy on a kid for something like two hundred a year.’
There was total silence. Then Morris let out a disbelieving hoot. ‘Aw, Ted!’ my buddies began to protest adoringly, and everybody started shaking their heads and punching each other on the arm and laughing. My father put his hands up like an innocent man and said, ‘Hey, it’s a good idea! Isn’t it? Surely you boys can spare two hundred a year. Tell you what, I bet you can pick the kid already. I bet you already know which kid is going to die.’
My buddies were laughing and I quickly laughed too. We all started shouting out names and laughing and in the middle of it all Eric Saunders leaned across the table and hissed, ’Is it true? Is he just messing? How can you tell if he’s just messing?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, and I really didn’t. Everyone was shouting now and I heard someone say, ‘No, on the motorway. He’ll come off the overbridge and bust through the railing and end up at the bottom of the ravine.’ And Morris said, ‘No, it’s chopper blades or nothing.’ And someone said, ‘I’d put my money on Saunders.’
Everybody except Eric Saunders laughed. My father smiled his sly little therapy smile and ordered more wine. ‘You boys are going to have a great year. You boys are going to be great,’ he said.
The next year he booked the Japanese Room and we got drunk after the fourth glass. I invited the original six, even though Eric Saunders was nobody’s friend any more and Morris had become a ponce. We wore black tie.
‘What’s the best thing about sleeping with a minor?’ my father said. ‘Getting paid eight dollars an hour for babysitting.’
I hadn’t seen my father since the Empire Room. He called sometimes but the two-second delay on the long-distance call made him sound distant and distracted and I always worried that I was talking too little or too much.
‘Who died? Did anyone die this year?‘ my father asked us after the first course had been cleared away. The capillaries in his cheeks were standing out in bold little threads and I could tell he was drunk by the way he ducked his head slightly every time he blinked. He grinned and looked around the table at us all. Eric Saunders was the first one to speak.
‘After we went out last year,’ Eric Saunders said, ‘I wrote a list. I wrote down three names.’
‘Yes?’ my father said eagerly. He looked delighted. The rest of us looked at Eric Saunders and privately thought that it was no wonder he was nobody’s friend any more. He was so pinched and ugly looking. He had borrowed his suit from his brother and it was shiny on the elbows and the lapels. I don’t think it even counted as black tie. It looked too cheap.
‘The first one died,’ Eric Saunders said. ‘Simon Ferris. With his dad’s gun. He was top of my list.’
’Did you take out a policy?‘ said my father.
‘No,’ said Eric Saunders. ‘I thought it was a fluke. But for weeks and weeks I thought about the million dollars I might have made. Then the next one died. He crashed his car. Joseph Lust crashed his car.’
‘Did you take out a policy?’ said my father.
‘No,’ said Eric Saunders. ‘When Joseph Lust died I cried for a whole day about the money I could have made. Everyone thought I must have been really close to him. Everyone was really nice to me for days afterwards.’
Eric Saunders sounded broken. I was starting to feel a bit sick. My dad sat there with his fist curled around his pricey wine and smiled his therapy smile.
‘What about number three?’ he said, still watching Eric Saunders.
Eric Saunders said, ‘Number three is just a feeling.’
The eels arrived. We were silent for a while as the waiters moved in and out. After a long time my father said, ‘I have a joke so dirty none of you boys will be able to top it. But I’m willing to let any of you try.’