Second-Family Man

A new short story

Joseph Epstein

A senior partner in the firm of Stone, Viner, Futterman and Waller, employing 40 lawyers, partners and associates, David Futterman has stayed late at the office this evening to go over the briefs for three different cases on which Stacy Shanahan, one of the firm’s paralegals, has been assigned to work with him. Ms Shanahan is capable, quick, efficient. They finish at 6.45pm, and Futterman asks the young woman if she is free for dinner. 

“Just let me get a few things at my desk,” Ms Shanahan says, “and I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

Ruth, Futterman’s wife, died, four years ago, at 61, of a heart attack while shopping at Crate & Barrel on a Saturday morning in the kitchenware section of the crowded Michigan Avenue store. He and Ruth had been married 37 years. They married the year that Futterman graduated from Northwestern Law School. Futterman always thought of his and Ruth’s as a happy enough marriage; certainly it was a solid one. 

Careful, prudent, Futterman does not usually fraternise after hours with the help. Especially not with attractive young paralegals or secretaries, lest gossip result. He has nothing especially in mind in inviting Stacy Shanahan to dinner, except a break in his own boring widower’s routine-dinner alone on a tray in front of the television set-and to reward her for working overtime. To ensure that no sexual interpretation can be put on his invitation, he decides to take Ms Shanahan to Harry Caray’s, on LaSalle Street, a far from romantic restaurant, noisy and masculine, a sort of sports bar with steaks and chops and heavy pasta dishes added.  

At dinner, Futterman learns that Ms Shanahan’s father is a retired Chicago fireman. She is one of six children, two girls, four boys, brought up in Marquette Park, the neighbourhood that gave Martin Luther King Jr a rough awakening when he brought his Southern Christian Leadership Conference movement to Chicago back in the 1960s. Two of Ms Shanahan’s brothers are now themselves firemen, one is a cop, and the other has a job at City Hall — a real Chicago Irish family. She had gone to Mother McAuley High School, and at one point, she tells Futterman, she considered becoming a nun. At Triton Community College she picked up what she needed to get a job as a paralegal. 

Stacy Shanahan is remarkably relaxed through dinner, or so Futterman thinks. Although she asks that he call her Stacy, she never refers to him as anything other than Mr Futterman. She orders and dispatches a full slab of ribs, a baked potato, a large side-order of coleslaw, washed down with a beer; food that suggests that she is not trying to beguile him with her feminine refinement.  

Futterman finds himself impressed with this young woman — with her independence, her taking control of her own life with, as far as he can tell, not much help from her parents. He is an old double-standards man, Futterman, at least insofar as he believes that life is harder for women than it is for men, that more traps and pitfalls await them. His own two daughters, by marrying young — one to a physician, the other to a man who has gone into his father’s lucrative dress business — avoided those horrors, and he is grateful that they have. 

Stacy Shanahan tells Futterman that she lives on Sheridan Road, 6300 north, and when dinner is over, he puts her in a taxi and slips two twenties in her hand, more than enough to pay the fare. She thanks him and thanks him, too, for a good dinner. Futterman makes a mental note to charge off both the cab fare and Ms Shanahan’s meal for her working overtime. 

“We’ll do it again some time,” Futterman hears himself saying before closing the door of the cab, though of course he doesn’t mean a word of it. 

Roughly three months later, at the law firm’s Christmas party, Ms Shanahan approaches Futterman. Holding a bottle of champagne, he has been walking around the large office conference room, a kind of peripatetic bartender, pouring champagne for anyone he notices with an empty glass.  

“Hi Mr Futterman,” Ms Shanahan says. “How go things?”

“Things go well, Stacy,” Futterman says. “The firm had a pretty good year. Hope you aren’t disappointed with your bonus . . .”

“Not in the least,” she says. She has a good smile, he notes.

Futterman senses that she is slightly tipsy, but fails to realise that so is he, having already drunk four glasses of champagne. 

“I’ve got some news,” Ms Shanahan says.

“What is it?” he asks.

“These are going to be my last two weeks at Stone, Viner, Futterman and Waller. I have a new job as an assistant office manager at Sidley Austin.”

“A good firm, Sidley, an old firm. Also a huge one. I hope you’ll be happy there,” Futterman says. “We’ll miss you,” he adds, hoping he didn’t sound perfunctory saying it. Paralegals come and go, their departure no big deal.

“I guess I’m an ambitious person,” Stacy says. “Sidley’s offering me more money. I also hope one day to be an office manager for a large firm.”

“I think you’re doing the right thing,” Futterman says. “You’re right to go for it.”

“I’m glad, Mr Futterman, really glad you feel that way.”

He pours her another glass of champagne, and one more for himself.

“The coyote manoeuvre” — Futterman remembered Barry Spackman, a young lawyer at his firm using the term talking to a contemporary in the locker room of the gym at the East Bank Club. He asked what it meant. Spackman told him that a “real coyote” is what you call a terrible woman you have slept with the night before. When you wake up the next morning in bed with your arm under her head, you look at her and want to bite off your own arm, as coyotes are said to chew off a leg caught in a trap, to make your escape. 

Futterman, whose arm is now under Stacy Shanahan’s head, in his bedroom in his apartment on Schiller, in the bed he and his wife had shared for decades, the sun slanting into the room, does not feel in the least like making the coyote manoeuvre. Before he had quite come awake, he felt rather pleased, the warm body of a young woman next to his. Then he thinks, “Christ! What have I done!” Through bleary eyes he notes the digital alarm clock on his night table: 11:27 am.

Futterman hasn’t a clear notion how this had come about. He remembers leaving his firm’s offices with Ms Shanahan, putting her in a cab, getting in beside her. He remembers having a full, just opened bottle of champagne in one hand and another unopened bottle under his arm, and Ms Shanahan holding two plastic fluted glasses. After that, things get blurry: there was much laughter, he struggled with the keys to his apartment while trying to hold on to the champagne bottles. The last thing he can remember is deciding, the hell with it, not to put the shoe trees in his shoes . . . 

Futterman is naked, and he looks over to his wife’s antique vanity and sees the two champagne bottles, now empty, and the two plastic glasses. He hears himself groan lightly. This is not like him, David Futterman, a man who writes the wills and plans the estates for wealthy clients, solid, square prudential David Futterman, a grandfather of three, in bed with a young woman he barely knows and with far from less than complete knowledge of how he got here. 

Although it would not be easy to prove at the moment, Futterman was not a player. He had never cheated on his wife during all the years of their marriage, and his experience with women before his marriage wasn’t extensive. Since Ruth’s death, he had gone out with four different women, but never more than twice with any one of them, and with none did he wind up in bed. Futterman did not consider sex a trivial act. Nor was he a drinking man. Last night, for some reason, everything broke loose, and here he is, hung over, naked, with a woman more than 30 years younger than he in his bed. 

Futterman slips quietly out of the bed, puts on pyjamas, robe and slippers, and  goes into the kitchen to make coffee. When he returns to the bedroom, Ms Shanahan is awake, sitting up in bed, the top sheet and blanket tucked under her chin.

“What’s that old Laurel and Hardy line?” she says, looking down. “‘A fine mess you’ve gotten us into this time, Stanley.’ Except I’m not even sure which one of us is Stanley.”

“I must be Stanley,” Futterman says, surprised at her old-fashioned movie reference, “even though you are too good-looking to be taken for Ollie.”

“Excuse me for a few moments, please,” she says, “while I get dressed.”

“I’ve got some coffee going,” Futterman says, and leaves the room.

In the kitchen, setting out breakfast things, Futterman thinks with relief that Stacy Shanahan would no longer be working at his law firm, thank God for small blessings. He isn’t sure how he will get out of this, but at least he won’t have to face this girl — though in her thirties, she seemed a girl to him — every day in the office. He used to wonder how men who slept with lots of women handled the get-away part. All he wants right now is to have this girl out of his apartment, so that he can work through his hangover and get back to the calm routine of his life. 

When Stacy Shanahan enters the kitchen, Futterman hands her an already poured cup of coffee. She takes her coffee black. She turns down his offer of toast. 

“I don’t know what to say about last night,” she says. “I hope you will believe that I am not someone who ordinarily wakes up in the bed of a man without quite knowing how she got there. And I’m certainly not someone who wakes up in the bed of a man she hardly knows. It’s not my way, really it’s not, please believe me.”

“I believe you,” Futterman says. “I’m probably more to blame than you. I guess I’ve been lonelier than I thought since my wife died. I didn’t mean to take advantage of you.”

“I’m more than 30 years old, Mr. Futterman, and ought to be able to take care of myself. Advantage doesn’t enter into it. I don’t think anyone taking advantage of anyone else is the issue here.”

“Can I get you something to eat?”

“No,” she says, “I really have to get home. I’ve a thousand things to do today, and it’s already noon.”

Stacy Shanahan finds and puts on her coat. At the door, Futterman asks if he can get her a cab, but she says she prefers to take the El, which at this time of day is quicker. 

“Good luck in the new job,” he says at the door, sounding silly to himself saying it.

“Take care,” she says, and is gone.

Futterman feels a gust of tremendous relief. He takes his coffee into the living room, flops into the chair in which he watches television, where he falls asleep until four that afternoon. 

Early in March, Futterman’s secretary informs him that he has a telephone call from a Ms Shanahan.

“Hello,” he says, apprehensive, “how are things?”

“Not so great, Mr Futterman,” she answers. “Seems I’m pregnant.” 

Futterman gulps. Calm is needed here, he thinks, great cool calm. Steady, he tells himself.

“I see,” is all he says, returning the ball weakly to her side of the court. 

“I’m afraid this is our office Christmas party child,” she says, in a slightly quavering voice. 

“You’re certain?” says Futterman, in his authoritative, lawyerly voice. 

“Yes. I hadn’t slept with anyone for months before, nor have I slept with anyone since. There’s no other possibility.” 

“Look,” Futterman says, “maybe we shouldn’t be talking about this over the phone. Are you free for dinner?”

They agree to meet at a restaurant in her neighbourhood, a hamburger joint on Broadway called Moody’s. The place turns out to be dark, with formica tables and paper napkins. Stacy Shanahan, arrived before Futterman, is seated in a booth along the wall. 

She appears — no surprise — tired, under strain. She is a striking young woman, black Irish, with long brunette hair pulled back in a ponytail, luminous blue eyes. Those eyes are now ringed with a slight shadow, the beginning of bags forming beneath them. She’s wearing jeans and a red T-shirt under a white sweater.  

“How go things at Sidley?” Futterman begins, thinking it best to start with small talk. “Hope the new job is all you expected of it.”

“Everything there is fine,” she says. “I only wish I could enjoy it, but my mind is of course elsewhere.”

Futterman has had nearly a full day to think things through. Was Stacy Shanahan a con woman, playing him for money? He decided not. Ought he to demand a DNA test? Here, too, he determined to believe her when she said that the child was his. A pity, he thought, that he couldn’t remember a thing about how he had helped conceive it. What Futterman decided was to decide nothing at all, but hear out her story. 

“I’m sure you have thought about an abortion,” he says. 

“I have and I have had to reject it,” she says. “Even though I no longer go to church regularly, I am still enough of a Catholic not to be able take abortion lightly. It’s a mortal sin, you know, one of the big ones. Abortion, I’m afraid, is a solution unavailable to me.” Her voice breaks and Futterman notes her eyes beginning to water. 

“Are you able to afford raising a child?” Futterman asks, waiting to hear of any financial demands she is going to make of him. 

“I could,” she says. “I’ve got some savings, though it wouldn’t be easy. Money, though, isn’t the problem, at least not the main one.”

“What is?” he asked.

“My family is the problem. They aren’t going to take to my being an unwed mother, no, not a bit, not in the least. They’re very traditional, very old Chicago Irish Catholic.” 

“What’ll you do?”

“What I am about to do right now,” she says, “which is to ask you, Mr Futterman, to please marry me.”

“You’re joking, right?” Futterman says. 

“Afraid not. You’re unmarried. I don’t know if you’re in any serious relationship at present, but I hope not. And you are the father of my child.”

“I’m also more than 30 years older than you, and we don’t, if I may say so, know very much about each other. Besides, how is your family likely to take to your bringing home a Jewish husband who for all I know is older than your father?”

“Actually,” she says, “he’s two years older than you. And my best guess is they’ll say how clever of Stacy to have landed a rich lawyer husband.”

“I have daughters, grandchildren,” Futterman says, not quite certain of the relevance of bringing this up.

“I don’t ask that we stay married for very long,” she says. “Just long enough to give our child — who is to be a boy, by the way — a name and maybe stay under the same roof a year or so, after which time I promise to clear out of your life, no questions or money asked. We can even write up a pre-nup to that effect, if you like.”

“I’ve never been proposed to before,” he says, “especially by the name ‘Mr Futterman’. And I certainly didn’t wake up this morning thinking I was going to be the father of, what’s the current stupid term, ‘a second family’.”

“Forgive me, I meant to say ‘David’.”

“Look,” says Futterman, “why don’t we change the subject, finish our hamburgers, and take a few days out for me to think further about it.” 

“Thank you, David,” Stacy says. 

“For what?” Futterman asks.

“For not calling me an idiot, getting up from the table and walking away.”

They eat their hamburgers, talk — he asks her more about life at Sidley Austin, she him about some of the people she liked at Stone, Viner, Futterman and Waller — and afterward he drives her the few blocks to her apartment on Sheridan Road. From the lobby of her building an Indian family emerges through the revolving door, a mother and father and three adolescent children. He thinks about leaning over to kiss Ms Shanahan on the forehead in a fatherly way before she steps out of his BMW, but instead tells her to sleep well and reminds her that he will be in touch two days from now, a Friday. 

As he drives away, Futterman thinks how preposterous all this is. Here he is, at 66, suddenly to be the father of a new child, a son no less, whose mother is a young woman he scarcely knows. Too crazy, the whole thing makes no sense whatsoever. Futterman’s first thought is to make a straight cash payment to Ms Shanahan. Twenty-five grand is the figure that comes to his mind. 

The next morning Futterman feels that Ms Shanahan, as he continues even now to think of her, really doesn’t want his money. He needs to take her at her word. She wants, just as she says, a father for her child, at least officially. Does this, he wonders, mean that she expects him also to live with her? Wasn’t the phrase “same roof” mentioned last night? He does have a large extra bedroom in his Schiller Street apartment, and he supposes that she and the baby could have it. His mind fleetingly feels a strange stab of pride at still being able to produce a child, and a boy, too. Then he thinks, God, the vanity of men. We’re all fucking nuts. 

If the young woman and his infant were to live in his apartment, Futterman’s bachelor routine, now firmly established after his wife’s death, would be completely disrupted. He missed Ruth but, truth to tell, he also liked being free of the social obligations that marriage to her brought with it: charity dinners, theatre tickets to plays he usually found either stupid or incomprehensible, meetings with her friends and their husbands. While his wife was alive, Futterman found himself going out three or four nights a week. Now, after leaving the office at roughly six each night, he ate dinner, usually alone in his apartment. He discovered he could cook a few basic things, omelettes, steaks and hamburgers, baked potatoes, spaghetti over which he poured a spicy store-bought sauce called Luchini. After dinner, he read, watched a ball game or an old movie, and usually went to bed after the ten o’clock news. 

With a newborn baby in the apartment, there would crying in the middle of the night, diapers and toys all over the place, formulas being made in the kitchen, a pram in the foyer. Impossible, hopeless, can’t be done. Futterman decides he will call Ms Shanahan in the morning and work out some kind of financial arrangement, a child-support payment, in effect, one that provided for the child’s upbringing and even his education. He’d have to think through the numbers. He is a modestly wealthy man, and is prepared to pay reasonably for his single unremembered roll in the hay. 

That night Futterman dreams that his son, now nine or ten years old, small, wearing glasses, braces on his teeth, fragile, obviously no athlete — looking, that is, rather like Futterman did as a young boy — is seated in a large auditorium next to Stacy Shanahan. So, too, are hundreds of other boys seated next to their mothers. Futterman is viewing all this from his seat on a dais on the auditorium stage. He realises suddenly that he is being introduced, in lavishly fulsome terms, by a man named Larry Ginsburg, whose bankruptcy he had handled some years ago and from whom he had a difficult time collecting his fee. Seated next to Futterman is Miss Mary Ann Burke, his music teacher at Senn High School, a large women with buck teeth who wore grey sharkskin suits and white silk blouses open at the neck as, seated at a grand piano, she played “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” with many florid arpeggios. 

“Excuse me, Miss Burke,” Futterman asks, “but why is this man Ginsburg introducing me?”

“You’re the featured speaker of the evening, David,” she answers, and lightly pats his knee. 

“What’s my subject?” he asks, feeling a needle of panic in his heart.

“Why, David,” Miss Burke says, gazing down at him, a surprised look on her large face, “the subject is of course fatherless children. It’s the charity for which we’re all here tonight.”

“And without further ado,” says Ginsburg, “I give you a man who can be counted on always to know whereof he speaks, my good friend, that great humanitarian, the honourable David Futterman.” 

Futterman makes his way hesitantly to the lecturn, where Ginsburg, grinning, with his hand held out, awaits him. “What would you know about honourable, you creep?” Futterman whispers to Ginsburg, who deserts him at the lecturn without answering. The applause is thunderous. 

Faltering at first, Futterman suddenly begins to speak in a flood of platitudes. Babies were not to be thrown out with bath water, apples never fell far from trees and, speaking of trees, great oaks from little acorns grow, which, Futterman allowed, might be construed as a case of apples and oranges, with the twain never meeting. Chickens should certainly not be counted before they hatched, nor bridges crossed before one comes to them, he rambled on, because one good turn deserves another. A bird in the hand is still worth two in the bush, no matter what anyone says, the piper must be paid, which makes it possible to separate the wheat from the chaff, for as ye sow so shall ye reap, and, all this being so, therefore the time was at hand to reach out and find the much-needed role model father-figures without whom, divided, we fall.  

Futterman senses a rumbling in the audience. Mothers and sons are walking out. Soon the only people left are Stacy Shanahan and her — their — son and the boy is weeping. At what Futterman isn’t sure. At his father’s embarrassing him with this disgraceful speech? At his abandoning him years before? Does he even know that Futterman is his father? Futterman is determined to find out and steps down into the auditorium seating, when a powerful need to urinate takes hold of him, and he wakes and walks quickly into the bathroom. 

When Futterman was finishing his last year at the University of Illinois, he had had a religious phase, briefly attempted to keep kosher, observe the sabbath, read a Bible portion each morning, and he told the rabbi at Hillel at the university that he was torn between becoming a rabbi or a lawyer. “Become a lawyer,” the rabbi had said, “it’s morally much more challenging.” At the time, Futterman wasn’t sure what the rabbi meant, but it didn’t take him long in the practice of law to understand completely. 

To be a lawyer, the Lord and the rabbi at Hillel knew, offered many temptations. One saw people in extremis, many of them terrified or confused or with revenge or greed in their hearts. One had people, if one wished so to have them, where one wanted them. At his firm Futterman knew about lawyers who were screwing their clients, literally in the case of vulnerable women undergoing divorce or widowhood, and financially by expensive over-billing in the case of nearly everyone else. Futterman did neither. He acted with probity, counselled his clients with all the prudence at his command. He liked to think that it paid off; a large part of his clientele was composed of referrals, and over the years he had made a handsome living. Above all Futterman needed to think of himself as a decent man, no angel but not a son of a bitch either. 

The right thing, Futterman knew, was not to abandon this child of his accidental making. The cost would be exorbitant — not so much the financial cost, but the cost in disruption and embarrassment. His entire life would be dishevelled, upended, blown apart. All that Stacy Shanahan asked was a year or so of marriage, to legitimise her child and please her family. For her it would, in effect, be a marriage of convenience; for Futterman, a marriage of the utmost inconvenience. Ms Shanahan, though, wasn’t the issue. The unborn child was. Was Futterman a man who could allow a child to walk around the world without knowing who his father was; or if he did know, to know that he didn’t give a damn about him? 

David Maurice Futterman and Stacy Katherine Shanahan are married at City Hall by a judge named John McHugh. Stacy’s sister Mary Beth and her brother Tom are there as a witnesses; no one from Futterman’s family appears. The following day Stacy moves into the spare bedroom in Futterman’s apartment. They take their meals together. Ruth’s friends wonder why Futterman has made this marriage. Men at his law firm don’t wonder but merely wink, and tell jokes out of Futterman’s hearing about May and December couples (“Danger, schmanger. Of course I’m going to have sex with her. If she dies, she dies.”) Rachel, Futterman’s oldest daughter, when asked about her father, invariably says, “Dad has a second family on the way,” never without rolling her eyes up in her head. 

In public with Stacy Shanahan, 34 years younger than he and showing her pregnancy from the fifth month on, Futterman feels a touch — sometimes more than a touch — awkward. What is this man, at 66 with thinning grey hair, a slight slouch, a small but distinct pot belly, doing with this beautiful — and Stacy is one of those women who become even more beautiful when pregnant — young woman? He is her father, Futterman imagines people seeing them together conclude, maybe even, who knows, her grandfather. 

Futterman is much relieved to discover that his son, who is given the name Daniel, is born without any of the defects that children born of older fathers sometimes have. The child, as even Stacy’s family acknowledge, looks more like a Futterman than a Shanahan. The boy’s mother goes along with Futterman’s wish to have a bris performed. 

Futterman’s Schiller Street apartment is redecorated and largely refurnished. They decide to turn the extra bedroom into a nursery for Daniel. When the painters are done, Stacy moves into the same bedroom as her husband. On their first wedding anniversary, at a dinner for just the two of them at Charlie Trotter’s, Futterman tears up their pre-nup, an act that he would have strongly advised any of his clients against doing. 

Out walking his son in the child’s Swedish pram along Astor Street or State Parkway, Futterman is identifiably the very model of the second-family man. Whenever anyone uses the phrase second family to him, he smiles and says that he prefers to think of himself instead as a second-story man. The second story is his current life with a young wife and infant son, and he hasn’t the least notion of how the plot of this second story is going to play out. For reasons not entirely clear to him, Futterman doesn’t spend much time worrying about it. 

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