When his phone chirped, Barney Mellina was safety-harnessed to a girder high above the new Tappan Zee Bridge. “Wilma’s calling!” shouted one of his co-workers. “Nah, it’s the doc,” said another. It was, in fact, the doc, Barney’s former girlfriend, Hannah Leland. She told him she had just been fired by the cosmetics tycoon Rick Schoenberger, whose personal physician she’d been for the past several months. Barney could tell she was in shock. She laughed after every third or fourth sentence about things that weren’t funny. Over the wind and the clanging of strand cables, Barney, who was born Eduardo and got his name in junior high because he looked like The Flintstones’ Barney Rubble, had a hard time hearing her.
“Rick said I broke the confidentiality agreement,” Hannah said.
“Did you?” said Barney, with one finger in his ear.
“It’s because I’m going out with Dean.”
She meant Dean Hanley the activist investor, Hannah’s most recent boyfriend. After some ragged conversations, Barney and Hannah had come to a tacit agreement not to discuss him. Barney refrained from voicing his opinion that the new boyfriend she regarded as heroic was just another greedy rich guy. Hannah, beautiful and willowy and, at forty, never married and still paying off student loans, had changed Barney’s life for a couple of years. A member in good standing of Ironworkers Local 1 and the International Association of Bridge Workers, Barney never got used to the idea that Hannah, with her degrees from Tufts and Yale, might have really loved him.
“Should I break his arm?” said Barney.
“Yes!” said Hannah, with the lilting laugh he wished he could wrap up and take everywhere. “Wait, no! There’s nobody to re-set it! Besides, you couldn’t get near him.”
“I’ll get near him,” Barney said. “But just to talk.”
“Oh, Barney,” Hannah said. “What could you possibly say to him?”
He was in his truck now, driving home to Hoboken from the bridge workers’ drop-off at the Tarrytown Marriot parking lot, and he felt powerful again, responsible for her well-being, even though it was no longer true. Long divorced, his daughter teaching in New Orleans and only occasionally checking in, Barney rented an apartment on Garden Street. His mother, Elena Mellina, lived nearby in the Jersey City Heights. Until she had fallen and broken her coccyx, Elena had been able to get around on her own. Now it took her two minutes to hoist herself up the stoop. Indoors, she used a walker. Every week, Barney went to the grocery store to fill her cupboard and refrigerator. He drove her to the doctors, even though he had to be on the bridge five days a week. Recently, hoping to shorten Elena’s healing time, Barney had asked Hannah to come examine her, even though he and Hannah had stopped dating months earlier. “Didn’t they see her at Hoboken University?” she said, referring to the hospital that Elena continued to call St. Mary’s. “They know what they’re doing.” Barney knew Hannah wasn’t about to shlep to Jersey City—not when she answered to one of the wealthiest men in the nation. He was also aware that his mother had never warmed to Hannah. Elena was always suspicious that she had reached her late thirties—this was a couple of years ago—without marrying. Barney had the same questions but, unlike his mother, he didn’t frame them with hostility. Even before her fall, Elena had to be home every evening to watch Jeopardy!; after the fall, she had taken to watching Wheel of Fortune, too. The second program invariably drove Barney right out of there.
It took Barney seventeen calls to Rick Schoenberger to get a call back. “Rick doesn’t know who you are,” Schoenberger’s secretary, Monifa, told Barney. “Are you soliciting for a specific project? You may send Rick’s business manager a prospectus.” Barney said no, he wasn’t asking for money, he was calling about Dr. Leland. “Dr. Leland is no longer employed by the company,” Monifa said, and hung up. During their second phone conversation Monifa said, “If you’re not an attorney, why are you calling about Dr. Leland?” Barney identified himself as an old friend of hers and was hoping for just a few minutes of Mr. Schoenberger’s time, to speak on Dr. Leland’s behalf. For another two calls, they went back and forth like this—Monifa always referring to her boss, whose corporate acquisitions and divorces had landed him on practically every national magazine cover, as “Rick,” while Barney couldn’t help referring in him more formally as “Mr. Schoenberger.” At last, Rick Schoenberger could give Barney five minutes this Thursday afternoon—but Barney would have to come out to Teterboro to meet him because Schoenberger was flying to Nantucket that evening.
It would be tricky, but Barney might be able to trade bridge hours with Bostic, or maybe with Jose.
Barney called Hannah at home—three large rooms on the Upper East Side, halfway between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Mt. Sinai, where she had been a resident until Schoenberger hired her away to be his personal physician.
“You’re wonderful for trying,” she said.
“Well, you used to think I was wonderful.”
Barney had some research to do. After she went to work for Schoenberger, Hannah had told Barney a fair amount—far more than she was supposed to—about the man and his company. The company was called The Hellinger Group, but Hannah didn’t know if there was a Hellinger. She had diagnosed Schoenberger as having Graves’ disease and dangerously high blood pressure. He already knew that Schoenberger, dizzyingly wealthy before he was thirty, had engineered a hostile takeover of the Italian cosmetics giant Bellezza. Schoenberger took the company public and made another fortune. Reputed to be a street-fighting negotiator, he gutted the companies he bought, his managers firing employees who’d been there for decades. He liked women. Or maybe, Barney thought, he didn’t like women. He paid out more than a hundred million dollars in alimony to four women; his fifth wife was the age his first wife had been when he married her. He kept his head shaved and he often dressed down, except for whatever was on his feet—he always wore expensive shoes. He shuttled among his various homes—the West Palm Beach mansion, the Southampton mansion, and the townhouse in the East Sixties. The townhouse was the residence Hannah was most often summoned to, but she had been flown to Florida several times, and then there were the Caribbean and European trips when she had to accompany Schoenberger and his family. “It sounds like fun, but it’s not,” she told Barney after she had had to cancel another weekend with him. “Rick’s a drama queen, especially when his blood sugar’s low.” Barney knew he shouldn’t be hearing any of this. Hannah was violating her confidentiality agreement long before she began dating that activist investor, or whatever the hell he was.
Hannah was introduced to Dean Hanley, she had told Barney, at a bowling party. Barney pictured a bowling alley, its aural assaults and its smells of bowling shoes and greasy food. It took another couple of mentions for Barney to realize Hannah meant a lawn bowling party, at an estate in South Salem, New York. “The invitation asked the guests to wear white,” Hannah explained. “I just wanted to roll around in the mud!” Barney hadn’t wanted to hear anymore, but Hannah forged on. “Dean is under a great deal of stress,” she said.
“I’m sure you’ll fix what ails him,” Barney said.
“He’s declared war on corporate complacency. He’s been called a knight in shining armor.”
“A paragon,” Barney said.
“Except his armor’s all scuffed from doing battle in boardrooms, he likes to say, fighting for the small shareholder.”
“Modest, too. That’s good in a corporate raider.”
“You know, when he first talked about his work, I thought of you. What was that old movie you took me to? With the blonde with the New York accent? Oh, you know, Barney! She shows up at the shareholder’s meeting.”
“The Solid Gold Cadillac?”
“That’s the one!” said Hannah. “Dean believes corporate executives have to perform, or they should be canned, like losing baseball managers.”
They met at a fundraiser for The Floating Hospital. Barney had been invited as past vice-president of Iron Workers Local 1. Hannah was representing Mt. Sinai. First seated across from him, then right next to him, Hannah was already half-inebriated when she asked him if he wanted to photograph her. The question startled him. It’s probably something she’s accustomed to, Barney thought—men telling her they want to photograph her, the lovely, untouchable physician.
“Sure, let me get my camera phone here,” Barney said. He pulled a phone-size lump from a pocket.
“That’s not a camera phone, you!”
“What is that?” She snatched it from his hand and turned it around. It was, in fact, just slightly puffier than a phone. “Really! Tell me, please.”
“It’s a bolt bag.”
“It holds bolts. Except there aren’t any bolts in it right now. They’re all in my neck.”
Hannah threw her head back and laughed. Returning the bolt bag to him with one hand, she used the other to lift the wine glass to her lips. “Why are you bringing it to a fundraiser?”
Barney shrugged. “I was transferring stuff from work clothes to this jacket and I got carried away! I’m around steel all day.”
“Do you have a hard hat?”
“You mean as we’re talking?”
“You naughty boy!” she chided. Her eyes appeared to be straining to focus. It made him distrust her friendliness. If he asked for her phone number, was he taking advantage?
That he was an ironworker didn’t seem to faze her. She was comfortable in the unpretentious Irish bars he favored and went to old movies with him—usually screwball comedies at Film Forum and Walter Reade, or the Silent Movie Matinee at the Brooklyn Public Library. He took her to see Easy Living, one of his favorites. She seemed to be enjoying it until the very end when Ray Milland tells Jean Arthur that her future will be “Cooking my breakfast!” and Hannah, along with two or three other women in the audience, hissed. She’s entitled, Barney thought; why should she accept the sexism of an earlier era? She didn’t need expensive restaurants and was content to stay in for dinner, especially if he cooked. After a while, he knew more than he wanted to about the men—the Chilean economist, the Hungarian-Jewish psychiatrist, the chronically tardy American Airlines pilot—who had passed through her life. When he asked why she didn’t marry any of them, she said, “I didn’t love them. Why would I marry them?” He wondered if it meant she couldn’t love him, either. They went to see The Lady Eve. This time Barney had the negative reaction, not to the movie but to Hannah’s glee at the pivotal train scene in which Barbara Stanwyck, newly married to Henry Fonda in a scheme to torment him, begins to list the men in her past: the stable boy Angus (“It was really nothing, dear, nothing at all”); John and his twin cousins Hubert and Herbert; and so on. Hannah roared and clapped. Barney tried not to sulk like Henry Fonda.
Several months into their affair, there was another charity event: Médecins Sans Frontieres. Barney joked that he couldn’t pronounce it and would stick with Doctors Without Borders. It wasn’t his crowd, but he felt lucky to be with her. Overcome with affection, he nuzzled her earlobe.
Throughout the evening he watched her twirling among prosperous-looking physicians. One guest, whose trimmed, silver-speckled beard made him look older than he probably was, appraised Barney and said, “I know you.”
“I don’t think so. I would remember.”
“Radiology? Long Island Jewish?”
“Jersey City Catholic. But close.”
“You’re not an MD, then.”
“I don’t even play one on television,” Barney said.
Staring into Barney’s face, as if to check the veracity of his statement, the bearded guest said, “You’re bleeding.” Barney’s fingers came away from his nose smeared with blood. The guest handed Barney a handkerchief. “Keep it,” he said and retreated to another group of guests.
“My lethal earrings,” Hannah said later, laughing gently, as she dabbed Barney’s bloody nose.
After almost a year, Barney decided it was time Hannah met his mother. Dinner would be at Elena’s apartment, and she wouldn’t hear of them bringing food, although they were welcome to bring wine. She had Jeopardy! on when they arrived.
“In Houston in the late 1960s,” Alex Trebek read off the panel, “one of two teacher-protégé doctors who pioneered the heart transplant.”
“Who was DeBakey!” called Elena.
“Incredible,” Hannah said. “I didn’t remember that! Do you always get them right, Mrs. Mellina?”
“She probably knows the other guy, too,” Barney said with pride.
“I’ve been known to be wrong,” Elena said. Quitting a winner, she used the remote to turn off the TV. Elena was too subtle to stare at Hannah, but Barney knew she was taking in every inch of her. Over Campari and soda and the stuffed mushrooms Elena had prepared, Hannah, coached beforehand by Barney, asked her about the apartment, about her late husband, Barney’s father, and about her upbringing in Bayonne. “It was so very long ago,” Elena said. “Do you have children, my dear?”
“Of my own? No. But I seem to be auntie to several children.”
“No, I’m not a pediatrician. My friends’ children.”
“I see. You didn’t want to be a mother.” It was half question, half accusation. Barney’s stomach fluttered.
“I haven’t had time,” Hannah said. Elena’s left eyebrow rose. “Not in the way I’d like to.”
“Ma, in the past twenty years Hannah earned three degrees. An internship. A residency.”
“It is quite an achievement,” Elena said.
“Who’d like a refill?” said Barney, standing and collecting the three cocktail glasses. He went to the kitchen counter, where the Campari bottle stood like a red-coated sentry.
“What are your plans?” Elena asked Hannah.
“I’ve been at Mt. Sinai for a long time. I’ve been considering joining Doctors Without Borders.”
This was news to Barney. The club soda’s fizz was suddenly the loudest noise in the apartment.
“Wouldn’t that take you far away?” said Elena.
“I’d go where they send me.”
“Indeed you will.” Elena went to the kitchen to slide the ziti from the oven. She asked Barney to open the bottle of Valpolicella that he and Hannah had brought. Yet she abstained. Barney took a sip, his thirst and appetite gone; Hannah drank two glasses and did not object when Barney, figuring she needed it, poured her a third. Later, about to serve the zeppole she had made, Elena placed both hands on the counter and stood still. “Ma, you all right?” said Barney. Elena needed a moment, then proceeded with dessert. Barney washed the dishes, Hannah dried. At the top of the stoop, saying goodbye, Elena took Hannah’s hand and looked up into her eyes. “I know you’ll do courageous work with your French organization,” she said. “I wish you all the best.”
“Well, it’s not set in stone, Mrs. Mellina,” Hannah said. Minutes later, in the privacy of Barney’s truck, Hannah said, “Well, that was bracing!”
“Did the ziti live up to its billing?”
“She made it sound like she was never going to see me again.”
“So when are you moving to Africa?” he said. It went unspoken that neither of them wanted to spend the night in Hoboken. He drove her home to her warm, Upper East Side cocoon. Although he had to park half a mile away, he was grateful to be invited to spend the night. TCM was showing He Married His Wife, with Joel McCrea, but neither of them could stay with it. Next day, after he had driven to Tarrytown and caught the bridge workers’ bus from the Marriot parking lot after he had spent half the day laying out strand cables, he checked in with his mother, who had weathered another dizzy spell. And what was her impression, Barney asked, of his doctor girlfriend?
“She seems like a lady accustomed to being liked,” Elena said.
Instead of joining Doctors Without Borders, Dr. Leland went to work for Rick Schoenberger at twice what she earned at Mt. Sinai. She and Barney lasted another ten weeks or so. He tried to be patient when she was summoned to Schoenberger’s office or to one of his residences in the middle of the night. At first, it was only the New York dwellings. Then it was West Palm Beach. Then it was St. Bart’s.
Then Hannah told Barney they weren’t a good fit and needed to let go of each other.
Underneath the Tappan Zee, the co-pilot of a supply barge was killed when the barge crashed into a piling in the Hudson River. None of the ironworkers knew the guy, but it was the first fatality on the project, and they all felt they had lost one of theirs. Even before Barney went for a drink with Roy Bostic, who had agreed to take his shift the following day, he got a call from Maria Fenton, a high school classmate who worked as a reporter for The Star-Ledger, asking Barney if he knew what happened. Not wanting to mislead her, Barney said that, although construction was going on just two hundred feet above the boat, he might as well have been in another county.
Barney and Roy Bostic had a drink at The Grill, in Tarrytown. They talked about the fatality and what it meant to sign up for such dangerous work. Soon they were no longer talking about the accident victim but about themselves. Bostic was the third generation of ironworkers of a black family, his grandfather enduring bigotry more intense than anything Bostic had experienced. After the third Jameson’s, Barney thanked him more profusely than he would have sober for taking tomorrow’s shift. Bostic asked Barney if he was using those hours to take care of trouble.
“My ex got fired,” he said, “and it wasn’t done right.”
“This the doctor you wanted to marry?”
“One and the same,” Barney said. “Have you ever heard of the Hellinger Group?”
“I do not believe so.”
“Hannah’s boss is the proxy.”
“Prexy,” Bostic said. “Short for president. That’s the word you’re looking for.”
“Ah.” In strokes of self-pity, Barney hammered out a familiar rhythm as he chronicled Dr.Leland’s medical expertise, her beauty, the ease she felt with her patients and just about everybody else. He could almost hear the whine in his voice.
“What are you bellyaching?” said Bostic. “You had a good time with her, didn’t you?”
“I guess I wanted more.”
“Who doesn’t?” said Bostic, clinking Barney’s tumbler with his own.
Schoenberger’s company had arranged for Barney to park in a space on Lindbergh Drive. Barney was wearing his good clothes—Ferragamo shoes he’d bought when Hannah dragged him into Barney’s and told him it was his store and to make himself at home—and an Oxford shirt he wore without a necktie but buttoned at the top. He found Schoenberger’s plane, a Gulfstream 550. A burly, shaven-skulled, cinnamon-skinned man named Tariq met him at the portable stairs and patted him down. Tariq wore an Italian suit that made Barney feel about as dapper as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. Once they were inside the plane, Tariq asked if he objected to being filmed. “My right side doesn’t photograph well,” Barney said. Tariq asked Barney for his phone. “Why?” said Barney, handing it over. “Do you wanna make a call?” Tariq replied with a polite half-chuckle and, sliding the phone to an inside pocket of his jacket, told him he’d get it back when his meeting was over.
Barney was led into a curtained-off section of the jet, where Rick Schoenberger was seated on a stationary bicycle. It positioned him a foot higher than Barney’s head. Schoenberger’s reputation for charm had been confirmed by Hannah—“He gets what he wants and never raises his voice,” she reported—but Barney didn’t find Schoenberger pedaling in his sweatsuit and talking on a headset so charming. Schoenberger waved at Barney.
“Something to drink?” asked Tariq in such a way as to discourage Barney from taking him up on it. Barney said he was good, thanks. He heard Schoenberger say American Express would take it up the ass if they didn’t make him whole. “That limey memorized every single account number!” Giving no indication he had ended the call, Schoenberger offered a sweaty hand over the handlebars to Barney and barked that his former butler had run up millions of dollars on Schoenberger’s credit cards and was now hiding out in Zurich or Geneva.
“Did I come at a bad time?” said Barney.
“It’s always a bad time,” Schoenberger said. “You’re here about the doctor.”
“That’s right. Dr. Leland.”
“And who are you, her business manager?”
“I’m an ironworker,” Barney said.
“An ironworker! Have you ever worked on one of my properties?”
“For the past thirteen years, I’ve just worked on bridges.”
“You gotta have some connection to Hannah or you wouldn’t be here.”
“We were involved for a while.”
“In other words,” Schoenberger said, “you’re not engaged to her anymore.”
“No, sir. We were never engaged.”
“So you have no claim on her.”
“I wouldn’t have any claim on her if we were.”
“So what do you want from me? Is she suing me? Is she looking for money?”
“She left a good position at a hospital to work for you. Exclusively for you. She’s looking for you to honor the contract.”
“She didn’t honor the contract! God knows what she told Manly Dean Hanley!”
“She fell in love, Mr. Schoenberger.”
“She wasn’t permitted to fall in love with a competitor!”
“She doesn’t need your permission.”
“I hate to clue you, my friend, but she does! She does need my permission. Do you need my attorneys to educate you?”
A camera lens down peered at Barney. Next to the lens was what looked like a child’s artwork, elegantly framed and carefully bracketed to the plane’s wall to accommodate its curve. Barney wondered if the artist was one of Schoenberger’s children.
Schoenberger slowed his pedaling and grabbed a towel from the handlebars. “Let me ask you something.” He dabbed his face and the back of his neck. “Have you been to the World Economic Forum in Davos?” He made a show of cupping an ear. “No? I didn’t think so! Have you been to the White House?”
“Once,” Barney said. “On a group tour. With my mother.”
“I’ve been to the White House three times”—Schoenberger held up three fingers—“by invitation. I break bread with Nobel Prizewinners. I saved a child’s life once by flying medicine to her halfway round the world. Can you do that?”
“I don’t own a plane.”
“No, you don’t,” Schoenberger said. “So why would you question my judgment?”
“It’s not your judgment I’m questioning, Mr. Schoenberger. It’s your sense of fairness.”
“Excuse me?” Schoenberger stopped pedaling. “As her employer, I have every right to fire her!”
“You were her patient.”
“You fired her preemptively. She’s never betrayed your confidence.” For the moment, Barney had no compunction about saying something that wasn’t quite true.
“How would you know? She dumped your ass!”
“I still know her better than you do,” Barney said.
“I can tell what people are going to do. I happen to be very good at that.”
“You’re very good at firing them,” Barney said. Tariq nudged beside him, the shoulders of his suit as blocky as an NFL lineman’s, planting himself between Barney and Schoenberger. Barney glanced at the camera lens on the wall and tried to catch his breath. He wanted to tell Schoenberger that, for all his billions, he knew absolutely nothing about people. He had a flash of calling Maria Fenton at The Star-Ledger. A wrongful termination story involving Rick Schoenberger would be more of a coup for her than reporting on a fatal accident at the bridge. He was imagining the page one headline when he heard his phone bleat inside Tariq’s jacket. Tariq made no move to give it to him. So that’s the way it was going to be. “My five minutes are up, sir,” Barney said to Schoenberger. “I’ll be on my way.”
“Easy there, tiger,” Schoenberger said, stepping down from the bicycle. “Are you the boyfriend who took the doctor to old comedy films?”
The question took Barney by surprise. That Hannah had disclosed this to Schoenberger made his blood race. “Unless there was another one who did,” Barney said.
“Yeah, she mentioned you. You’re all right.” Schoenberger nodded to Tariq, who returned Barney’s phone. Both men escorted him through the curtain, toward the exit door. “Let me ponder this,” Schoenberger said. Barney was careful on the portable steps down to the tarmac. After half an hour in the Gulfstream jet, with its scents of leather and sweat, he welcomed the swampy fragrance of the Meadowlands. “We have your contact information?” Schoenberger called behind him.
Barney nodded and waved without turning around. There was a text from his mother: Artichoke hearts. Advil. He wanted to phone Hannah but knew he ought to calm down first. In the truck he removed the Ferragamo shoes and put on his work boots, though they were three times heavier. He found artichoke hearts and Advil in a bodega on Paterson Plank Road, then continued on to his mother’s. During the increasingly congested drive to Jersey City, he finally left a message for Hannah, keeping it brief so he didn’t plough into the sedan in front of him.
She called back in less than a minute.
“What did you do?” said Hannah, her tone sounding half-accusatory. “Rick wants to see me when he’s back from Nantucket!”
Barney acknowledged he’d met with Rick Schoenberger and it had been “interesting.”
“I can’t believe he’d really consider it,” said Hannah. “Usually he makes up his mind and that’s the end of it.”
“Maybe he’ll change it this time.”
“He made you come to the plane?”
“And give up my phone while I was there.”
“Well, they don’t want you to photograph anything.”
“They were photographing me. I spotted a camera right above some kid’s painting.”
“It’s a Basquiat. Rick paid seventeen million for it.”
“Seventeen million? That plane better not crash.”
“He’d just buy another one.”
“Another painting or another plane?”
“Oh, Barney, I love you! I don’t know how to thank you!”
Something inside him churned—a gear grinding from an undepressed clutch. “There may be nothing to thank me for. Let’s see.”
Barney found his mother seated on the couch facing the TV. He set down what she’d asked for beside her basket of pills. She muted Jeopardy! to greet him.
“Don’t get up, Ma,” he said. She had no intention of getting up. “How’s the tailbone?”
“It hurts like hell. Did you have a union meeting?”
“I was trying to get Hannah’s job back.”
“And why is that your responsibility?”
“I thought I could help.” Barney noticed one of the Jeopardy! contestants, a silver-haired woman who occupied the middle position, clicking her clicker but never getting there first.
“Maybe she wasn’t professional enough.” Elena put the TV sound back on.
“Ma, your hostility toward Hannah isn’t helping.”
“Vaffanculo!” said Elena.
“What?” He had heard his mother swear many times, but not at him. Never at him.
“I don’t need this right now! I am in pain!”
“You need something stronger than Advil, Ma,” Barney said. He began punching keys on his phone as though searching for a guide to painkillers.
“Baseball terms for six hundred,” a Jeopardy! contestant said.
“It’s the batting position that comes after ‘On Deck.’”
“What is ‘In the hole?’” called Elena.
She waited to have her answer confirmed as correct. Then she put her liver-spotted hand on Barney’s, stopping his text or whatever he was doing. “You cannot keep pining for this woman. This doctor. It is unseemly! She is not worth your time! She never was.”
Barney’s indignation, pumped by exhaustion, ballooned. “She’s accomplished more than everyone in this family put together.”
“Undoubtedly,” Elena said.
“I’ll take American Tycoons for two thousand, Alex.”
“In 2010,” Alex Trebek read, “he raised more than a billion dollars by offering public stock in the cosmetics company Bellezza. Now he plans to take it private again.”
“Who is Carl Icahn!” shouted Elena.