Professor Paxton elaborates

The Five Sails restaurant in Vancouver is right on the waters of the harbour. If you sit at the window, as I always do, you can see the five sail-like structures that mark the Canada Place Convention Centre and for which the restaurant is named, the Lion’s Gate Bridge that spans the first narrows to the northwest, and, if the light is just right, the eery cones of yellow sulphur across the water to the northeast. The restaurant is technically a part of the Pan Pacific Hotel, which means that I can dine there on my room bill whenever I’m in town on business.

When I went to the Five Sails the first time, I was worried that they might be booked out.

“Well,” said the maître d’ from behind her ornate lamp, “let me see.”

She looked like Kristin Scott Thomas could have looked like before she was Kristin Scott Thomas.

“Hmm,” she hesitated and consulted a large book while I scanned the restaurant that seemed extremely unoccupied at that moment.

“Will it be busier later?” I asked.

“Oh no,” Kristin smiled absently. “I’m just making sure that Guido can seat you at table 64.”

The name Guido seemed out of place at the Five Sails, but this was Canada.

“Table 64?”

“It’s lovely,” Kristin said and smiled the tight little smile she did in Four Weddings and a Funeral, “and private.”

Table 64 was indeed lovely, tucked away behind a pillar and yet right at the window, with a view across the harbour and enough of an angle into the restaurant itself to allow for eavesdropping and mental gossip. As Kristin left, Guido stepped from behind the pillar.

“Gooda evening,” he rasped.

Guido looked to be on the wrong side of eighty. He sighed and rearranged the knives and forks I had moved aside to make space for my laptop and a little notepad, and stood back to survey me.

“Welcome,” he explained with tired Italian hand signals. “Vine?”

He stood at my shoulder as I dragged my finger slowly down the short section of the wine list dedicated to British Columbia. When I reached the Burrowing Owl Syrah, Guido cleared his throat.

“Very good,” he nodded.

I continued down the list, but he cleared his throat again. “Very good.”

The Burrowing Owl was a mere $68, and it was indeed very good, helped along in that direction by the knowledge that I had an evening before me with nothing to do but eat fabulous food, stare out across the water, read, and look at people. A benign warmth enveloped me and within a few minutes I had fallen in love with the Five Sails. A willowy, tall young man appeared with a basket of bread and retreated after explaining its contents with references to leavening that I couldn’t quite follow. He didn’t so much walk away as propagate, a wobbly wave of thinness that reminded me of the character Ichabod Crane in a cartoon version of Sleepy Hollow I once saw. Now and then Guido reappeared to top up my wine and rearrange my cutlery, and once Kristin came to smile at me. I was smitten.

After that first visit, we fell into a happy rhythm. Kristin would greet me at the door, remember my name, and then wonder playfully about table 64. Guido would insist on the Burrowing Owl, upon which we’d settle after I’d put up some token resistance. I would sit in quiet repose, reading or trying to write, while Ichabod undulated back and forth with small plates of scallops and baskets of bread. At a tacitly agreed moment, about half-way into the Burrowing Owl, Ichabod would oscillate to an obsequious standstill at my table.

“And how are we enjoying the scallops?” he would enquire as he rippled toward the ceiling.

“Are you having some with me?” I would ask, and we’d both smile at our little joke.

Now and then Guido would come to spill some of the Burrowing Owl on the tablecloth, and always there’d be the white chocolate mousse and apple compote dessert called Beautiful British Columbia to round off the evening.

My visits to the Five Sails became the highlight of my trips to Vancouver. They stood as an established ritual of pleasant inaction until the day Professor Paxton came. I knew something was wrong when Kristin greeted me at the entrance.

“Let’s see what table we can get for you tonight,” she smiled.

“Table 64 is perfect,” I said uneasily. “I love the pillar.”

“Unfortunately,” she murmured without looking up, “so does Professor Paxton.”

It took me a moment to absorb this.

“Who’s Professor Paxton?”

“He’s a regular guest,” Kristin said as she collected menus and prepared to seat me, “like yourself.”

As it turned out, Professor Paxton was a somewhat more regular guest than I was. Guido and Ichabod were doting on him when Kristin seated me at the table right next to my beloved number 64.

“What I’m saying,” Professor Paxton, a bearded man in his seventies, intoned, “is that when I was here last, the soufflé was grainy.”

“Grainy?” Ichabod warbled like an egret.

“Yes,” the older man insisted. “Tell Ernst. Like me, he’s a precise man. He’ll understand.”

Guido nodded and signalled for Ichabod to stop being surprised.

“That not good,” he agreed. “I tell chef.”

“While you’re at it Guido,” Professor Paxton said, “fetch me another Hennessy, will you?”

Guido and Ichabod hurried off while Professor Paxton sighed and sat back in my chair. As he gazed out across the waters of the harbour, I fumbled with my cutlery and tried to get used to my vicarious position. From what I’d heard, the professor was clearly not Canadian, and sounded instead as though he came from New York, or perhaps New Jersey. With my luck, he was from Princeton, and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study. To rub it in, he was a physicist, involved in various forms of preciseness—perhaps cosmology, or quantum gravity. His tweed jacket looked like a physicist’s jacket. He came to Vancouver, I decided, to visit his daughter who taught at Berkley down in California. Because he didn’t like California, they met here every few months. Her husband was a sociologist, and originally from California, and the professor had never really liked him either.

“The Burrowing Owl,” Guido said far away and drifted from my view.

I noticed that Ichabod had already brought my bread and I nibbled unhappily at a piece. At my table the professor was sipping his Hennessy and poring over the wine list while Guido wrung his hands nearby.

“Let’s have the Château Latour 2012,” the professor said after a near-infinite interlude, “shall we?”

“Very good,” Guido nodded.

I made a mental note to discuss how Italy had switched sides during the Second World War when I next spoke to Guido. The professor, I realized after a peek at the wine list, must have left the Institute to pursue a business venture with former colleagues. He had abandoned physics and was now making money in biophysics. He travelled to Vancouver every now and then to attend a board meeting of the company he’d helped found. They’d invented a machine that could record brain waves and then induce those same waves in other brains. They were going to make a killing.

As I reviewed the growing indictment against the professor, I was filled with an irrational envy, the kind I’d felt once before when I drove by a property I’d rented on Lake Chelan, only to see the owner in residence.

“How are the scallops?” Ichabod wondered beside me.

I was clearly dining alone tonight.

“They’re fine,” I said.

“Excellent,” he warbled and went to stand nearby as Guido took the professor’s order.

I had settled on the sablefish as a main course but I stopped looking forward to it when the professor described something that was clearly not on the menu. I strained to hear what he was saying, but it was no use.

“As always,” Guido nodded, “with Madeira sauce.”

When Guido and Ichabod had gone, Professor Paxton sat back and sighed with contentment. He took out a little book and carefully jotted a note to himself. This worried me. Was it a formula he’d written, despite the Château Latour, or a line I would wish I’d written myself, inspired by it? I toyed with the different shapes these lines could take until our food arrived—his mystery dish remaining a mystery but looking better than my sablefish—and while we both ate. The prospect that the professor was now a man of letters, bringing to bear upon his writing the many years he’d spent in science, was simply too much to handle. What had started out as a mere displacement from my beloved table had become a cruel annexation of my desires.

Just then, as if choreographed by a sadistic demigod, Kristin came to smile at him.

“How’s Megan?” she asked coyly.

“She’s fine,” the professor nodded as if to suggest that Megan was, in point of fact, not so fine. “It’s her boy I’m worried about.”

“Nathan, right?”

The professor nodded grimly.

“And her sister—” Kristin hesitated.

“Anna is always good,” the professor said as he motioned for Kristin to sit. “She has a book coming out this week. I’ll see her tomorrow.”

There were two sisters, I realized, not one. Anna lived here, in Vancouver, and taught creative writing at UBC. Her novels shared a central theme of loss and regained purpose. Her husband was a scientist—the son the professor never had—and their boy attended a local Montessori School. Megan’s boy, upon the insistence of his father, went to a Waldorf School in California. Family gatherings were always tense and the professor sometimes went for long walks without telling anyone where he’d gone.

Kristin sat with her one leg folded beneath her. “How long has it been?” she asked softly.

The professor looked at his hands and swirled his Château Latour. I had always nursed a tiny crush on Kristin, the sort that unfolds without warning from a hint of perfume and the timbre of a voice. In truth, my earlier crush on the actress had likely carried over to Kristin when I saw her at the door the first time. I had no possessive need to speak to her, but I felt an inexplicable jealousy at seeing someone else do it.

“Mousse?” Guido startled me from my sulking reverie.

“Not tonight,” I said. “Just the check please.”

When I returned from the restroom, the professor had left. As I sat and watched Guido and Ichabod clear table 64, I thought about what Kristin had asked him. How long has it been? I had been so preoccupied with the fact that the professor had ruined my evening that I could only now take in what he’d answered, Nine years this September. With a pang I realized that his wife never saw this restaurant and probably died before Anna’s first book came out. Before her illness, they sometimes travelled to California to visit Megan. While there they always took an overnight trip down to Paso Robles to visit the Turley winery. His wife, who had an artistic flair, doodled the iconic flourish of the Turley logo on a napkin while they sipped Zinfandel and talked about their lives and their plans. It wasn’t California that he didn’t like. It was the memories of California that he dared not disturb. It was obvious to me that the professor had more right to sit at my table than I ever had to sit at his.

The next morning, as I walked out toward Howe Street and my office, the professor stood at the curb, waiting for a taxi. He looked less trim than he had the night before, and tired. On a whim I walked up to him.

“I need to thank you,” I said.

Professor Paxton nodded almost imperceptibly as he took my hand. “What for?”

“For a story,” I hesitated. “And a lesson.”

“Ah,” he said and smiled. “I thought so. You’ve sat there too.”

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  1. “a cruel annexation of my desires.”

    Best line in the story. Wish I could say that I have not felt that green monster perched on my heart, but alas…I am only human.

    Please send it to the New Yorker or Harper’s Weekly.

  2. Just LOVE this one, wish I had been there to observe the sulking observer, with my own plate of scallops to distract me… Hugs to y’all, we miss you terribly xx