By William Masters.
By 10:45 p.m., all the diners had left the Da Vinci Café except a pair of older gentlemen dressed in the best of their finery, held together with suspenders, collar pins and ties. Guido Contini, the café’s owner, advised his staff to allow the pair to remain as long as they pleased.
From the table at which they had been dining, the two very old men rose and walked past a pair of open French doors to a table on the patio. For the last time, they wished to enjoy the Indian summer’s lingering warmth and light from the full moon before the San Francisco fog rolled in signaling the staff to switch on the heat lamps.
“Much improved,” said the first old man.
“Yes, indeed,” replied the second old man, smiling to reveal a set of unnaturally white teeth. The whiteness of his Cheshire cat smile matched his still abundant, snow-white hair that reflected a glint of white light from the shimmer on the surface of the water from a birdbath centered in the middle of the patio. The men sat, surrounded by empty, marble-topped tables that glowed beneath the moonlight with the eerie white patina of a headstone.
Their mercenary server, hoping for an expensive dessert order, sent the busboy with a cart containing fresh place settings, two dessert menus, and a pair of candles. The busboy arrived with a tray of clean cups and saucers, a thermos of fresh coffee and two candles. After lighting the candles, he offered fresh coffee.
“No thank you,” the men replied in unison.
The busboy retreated from the patio, almost immediately replaced by the original server.
“Our dessert special tonight prepared tableside is flambéed pineapple with mascarpone filled crepes, macadamia nut streusel and rum raisin ice cream.”
“I don’t think so,” said the first old man, “God forbid I should be responsible for cruelty to pineapples.”
“No thank you,” said the second old man. “Why do chefs ruin so many desserts with the addition of raisins?”
“It’s not the chef’s fault, sir,” began the server. “Responsibility belongs to ambitious cooks and earnest housewives trying to win recipe contests,” he remarked contemptuously, then regained his professional demeanor. “Something from the regular dessert menu, gentlemen?”
“No thank you,” said the first old man. Ask the sommelier to come here, please.”
Bowing deeply, the disappointed server excused himself. Almost immediately the sommelier appeared.
“What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
“We’d like to order a Bordeaux.”
“Of course, gentleman. Do you have you a preference?”
“Do you have a 1982 Lafite Rothschild?”
“We have two bottles, sir.”
“We’ll need only one.”
“A bottle is $3,295, sir.” The sommelier looked hesitant. “I will need to run a credit card please before I open the bottle.”
“Don’t be embarrassed. We understand,” said the second old man, “it’s commerce before tact.”
“But wait!” said the first old man, “What about the 1981 drought in French Burgundy? Did it adversely affect the 1982 grape harvest?”
“You mean taste? Apparently not,” his friend responded. “Certified tastings by both oenologists and sommeliers published in Wine Spectator attested to the superior quality of the vintage.”
“Wine Spectator? That style magazine!”
“Well, Decanter magazine also confirmed the same.”
“I suppose we can rely on Decanter. Is the 1982 vintage still within the ICC Drinking Window?”
“Just within, but since so many bottles have been consumed and highly rated, I’ m confident we can look forward to….”
“Alright, then. Make it so.”
As soon as the sommelier left, Guido silently entered the patio and appeared at the table. Guido had first noticed these men, over thirty years ago, when as ripely middle-aged patrons, they had first appeared at his café, each as a solitary diner. On one evening, with the first man already seated, the second man arrived, as usual, alone. With no vacant tables, Guido’s hosting instincts moved into gear, and he led the second man to the first man’s table.
“I hope you don’t mind, sir, but I often see you both in my café, always dining alone. There is no empty table for this gentleman. Will you graciously allow me to seat him at your table where the drinks will be on me tonight?”
And thus the two solos met. Their first impressions of each other registered as the casual, superficial observations strangers make during an initial meeting. Both men still retained full heads of hair, looked well cared for and fit enough to wear tailored suits. They had fresh manicures and wore wedding bands. After drinking the first bottle of wine, the men discovered how much more they shared in common. Both practiced law, had served in the Navy, lived through several wars, political assassinations, stock market crashes, and the terms of several presidents. After the second bottle, the men realized they both bore the scars from the behaviors of ungrateful children and survived the pecuniary effects of divorce and remarriage only because (to their vast amusement), both had insisted on prenuptial agreements. This last item sealed a lasting bond between them. Soon they began arriving together two or three times a month, as part of the late night crowd. Gradually, they became confidants. As confidants, they recommended barbers and tailors to each other, and sotto voce, revealed the contents of certain top secret documents from sealed court cases, offered stock tips, shared newly discovered tax loopholes discovered by their accountants, shoveled the dirt on certain judges and finally, in a supreme mark of trust, disclosed the names of their connections at city hall.
For a break on busy nights, Guido frequently sat with the men for a drink. Occasionally he ate a meal with them. None of these men ever met outside of the café. Eventually, they developed the same ease of relationship and level of comfort often found in successful marriages and top business partnerships. Tonight, Guido nursed a set of melancholy feelings knowing this would be the last time they would enjoy each other’s company.
“I’ve come to say good-bye,” he said. “I don’t approve of your agreement with each other, but I promise to follow your wishes.”
The men stood up from their chairs. Guido embraced them both, kissing each man on the cheek. “Arrivederci,” he said, and with a shrug of his shoulders, left the patio.
The sommelier returned with a pair of wine glasses and the bottle of burgundy. He opened it in the presence of both men. Before he could pour…
“Thank you, sommelier. Please stop. I want to pour. And please close the doors as you leave.”
The first old man poured half a finger of wine into his glass. He lifted the glass to his nose and inhaled. Smiling, he took a sip, held the wine in his mouth for a couple of seconds, and then swallowed.
“Lovely, he said.” Then he filled both wine glasses. The second old man took a small plastic bottle from his jacket pocket. He removed the lid and shook out four pills onto the tablecloth. Then, with a pair of carefully manicured fingers, he deftly pushed the pills to the other side of the table.
“After they dissolve and we drink, we’ll have five minutes to enjoy the wine before its effects render us unconscious. Then, almost immediately and painlessly, our respiration stops and shortly after that, we are gone.”
The first man dropped two pills into each glass. He pushed one of the glasses across the table in front of this friend.
“This will certainly be an improvement to living in a hospice for three or four weeks, increasingly medicated, semi-conscious, tubed and catharized.”
“Yes, how can we complain after 86 years of life?”
Lifting their wine glasses, the old men made their last toast, “Fina alla morte.”