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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St.

Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215


My brother Jacob and I went to work in my family’s restaurant the moment my father, Big Ike, decided it was safe. He had a two-part test. First each of us had to carry a saucepan full of water from one end of the dining room to the other, using only one hand, without rushing and without spilling. Then we each had to cut an onion precisely in half with one stroke of a heavy knife. Once our wrists had grown strong enough for those things, he judged we could handle the rest. It was a New American place, part of what adherents then called the “slow food” movement. The menu changed with the seasons, relied on small, local farms, and made diners feel virtuous. I was a prodigy at it. By the age of ten I could match almost any kind of meat with a sauce that made an artistic statement without overwhelming the ingredient. And like any cocky prodigy, I most liked performing with the most challenging material, game fowl and venison. When I was eleven my roasted venison with shallots and chestnut cream convinced Big Ike to let me cook and serve one dish of my own in the restaurant once a week. Jacob had different talents, not culinary ones. He liked doing the salads, but was always either too offbeat (experimenting with grilled mackerel in place of tuna) or clichéd (putting goat cheese on the beets every single time we had them). He couldn’t manage to be creative and crowd-pleasing at the same time. In any case salads were a lesser art. No one was ever moved by a salad.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

No, Jacob’s talents were with people. All the immigrant men in the kitchen, for example, treated him like a little nephew or cousin. They yelled at him sometimes in Spanish, but it was clear they all loved him. I was around just as often, but unlike Jacob I never learned Spanish from them and they never yelled at me like a family member. They were kind to me and thought fondly of me, but always as the boss’s kid, not one of their own. It was the same at school. I had friends; Jacob had followers. Kids believed it made them cooler just to be around him. Partly it was because Jacob moved more easily in his body than I did. I hit puberty early and grew into a muscular, oafish, red-haired kid with red body hair sprouting everywhere. I looked and felt as graceful as a Jersey cow. Jacob was dark, lithe, and relaxed. Partly it was my discovery, either just before puberty or during its very first stages, that I liked boys and not girls. We lived in an affluent, liberal part of Brooklyn, certainly not a homophobic part of the country in relative terms, but it was one more big thing about myself to present to the world at an age when I had to struggle to present any of me. And before I could figure it out, Jacob discovered it too. He got into my laptop and found the porn sites in the browser history. I don’t even know why I was looking at them, to be honest. I hadn’t yet learned to masturbate, and the gleaming hairless bodies and massive phalli of the men in those photos and videos intimidated me at least as much as they turned me on. We were twelve then. Jacob cornered me in our shared bedroom, an area barely big enough for our two beds and two dressers. The argument, like most we ever had, took


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

place nearly chest to chest because there wasn’t enough room for us to do otherwise. We shoved and wrestled and called each other foul names—his mostly variants of “faggot”— until he to the business of blackmailing me. He said he’d tell everyone in school about my faggotry if I didn’t go to our father with him and ask for a 50-50 split of the restaurant between us. Now, it was pretty well understood in our family that after I went to college—ideally the Culinary Institute—I would return home and partly take over the restaurant. When my father was ready to retire, he would pass the business to me. Jacob would go off and do something else, perhaps motivational speaking or real estate sales. My father had never said any of this explicitly, but it was implied in the way he talked about my future and his in the kitchen together, but not Jacob’s, and took care to explain to me but not Jacob all the details of our supply orders and accounts. I’d had no idea Jacob wanted to be included. I knew I didn’t want him. It was my future. He should get his own. I was scared of being a pariah at school, though, and Jacob could do that to me if he chose. At twelve, there was no contest between the two options. The future was far off and unimportant. What mattered was friends today.

At this point I need to explain that my father was mildly crazy. He thought that Oprah Winfrey was the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, quite literally, and prayed to Her as if She were Him. It had started in the early 1990s when Oprah ate at his previous restaurant, the one where he’d been head chef but not owner. Since then he’d catered for her every other or every third time she came to New York, carrying the containers of food in a cab himself


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

so he could be there to heat and plate. She’d even invited him on the show once to do some recipes. He’d declined. Not like that son-of-a-bitch writer (his words) because he thought he was above it, but because he felt it would dirty the service he performed for her. “Ms. Winfrey,” he claimed to have said, “you are too good to others. You must let people do things for you too. It makes us feel good.” He claimed that this little speech gave her the subject for a series of shows: Who Do You Let Help You? When we were old enough we grew skeptical about that last part. It seemed more likely to have been the other way around, that first he saw it on her show and later parroted it to her. A year or so before Jacob’s blackmail threat, Oprah had begun promoting the DVD and book The Secret. The Secret taught that if you wanted something badly enough, and worked hard on believing that the Universe would deliver it to you, you would indeed get it. My father took this as Oprah’s moment of revelation, like Jesus entering his thirtythird year and taking up the mantle of John the Baptist. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Just like The Secret instructed, when my father wanted something he made a vision board to focus his desire, a big sheet of card stock covered with pictures of or at least representing the coveted thing, and hung it where he could contemplate it often. I need to explain all of this as context for my father’s reaction when Jacob and I went to see him. Our apartment was only two blocks from the restaurant, and Jacob insisted we go straight there. Our father was in the kitchen inspecting a delivery of whole chickens. Jacob gave him some non-blackmail version of what we wanted. I think the gist was that we’d agreed it wouldn’t be fair for either of us to be shut out of the family business.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

What I definitely remember was that we wanted him to guarantee, in writing, that we would share the business equally when he was ready. My father looked at me and I nodded in submission. He leaned a hand on the high countertop and considered us for half a minute. “I hear what you’re saying,” he offered at last. “But do you think maybe it’s not a good idea to get locked in to a future so young?” This was how he tried to talk when he thought he needed to be serious and high-minded. It was his attempt to sound like Oprah Herself. “How will you be open to the whisper of your life speaking to you?” He paused to let us answer. Jacob wouldn’t take back what he wanted, though, and I couldn’t. “Maybe I need to have a private dialogue with each of you, then. In my office?” His office was a windowless closet behind the kitchen with barely enough room for a narrow desk. Jacob headed for it immediately, presumably to get in his side of the story first. My father followed and I climbed onto a stool to wait. Two assistant chefs were starting dinner preparations; one asked me politely to move my stool against the wall so as to be out of their way, but otherwise they ignored me. Eventually Jacob came out and my father beckoned me in. He was at least seventy or eighty pounds overweight at the time, and like many chefs he handled the extra bulk adroitly in the kitchen, awkwardly everywhere else. In here he had to squeeze through a tiny gap to fit behind his desk, where he looked wedged-in and uncomfortable. There wasn’t enough space for a second chair so I had to stand. “So,” he said. “What is the life of your dreams? Who is the complete person you believe you were intended to be?” “I want to cook with you.”


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

He shook his head. “I don’t think you really let that simmer, there.” I was confused. I didn’t need to think about it. I had assumed a future of cooking with him for as long as I could remember. “I know we’ve always talked about your life proceeding down a certain path,” he said, “but I want you to know that it’s okay if things don’t turn out exactly like the picture in my mind. The important thing is for you to let your light shine.” “I want to cook with you,” I repeated. “Is that all?” My father laid the back of his left hand on the desk, and then turned the hand over to lay down the palm. “What I mean is, are those the elements that matter most to you? In your vision of us cooking together, does it matter where we are, or what kind of cuisine we’re doing, or how much money you make?” I started to feel nervous. I could tell that the question was important and my father would lean on the answer heavily, but I didn’t know how. I was afraid I might say the wrong thing, leading my father to the wrong conclusion and screwing up my whole life. “I don’t want Jacob cooking with us. I don’t want him in the kitchen.” “If the place is half his, you can’t keep him out,” my father said. I pressed my lips together. I could not speak. I knew I had to lose this battle to Jacob and I hated it, and him, and was helpless to stop it. Looking back on it now, though, I am not sure I understood the scale of the battle, or how radically things were about to shift for me. When you handle a memory as much as I’ve handled mine of this conversation with my father, you leave psychic fingerprints and smudges all over it. It is likely that at the time, I saw this merely as one more shitty thing between siblings, not one of the two worst things Jacob might ever do to me.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

“All right,” my father said. “Here’s what I’m going to do. When you’re old enough and ready, I will start a second restaurant, and that one will be yours.” “What about this restaurant? You’re not giving all of it to Jacob?” My father shook his head. “You can’t think about it like that. We’re going to ask the Universe for a second restaurant, and we both need to believe we’ll get it. In my mind I’ll make plans as if I have two restaurants already, one for each of my sons, and you need to take that into your heart too.”

I did my best. Like him I made a vision board and covered it with pictures representing what I wanted in my restaurant. This evolved a fair amount as I got older, despite my father’s warnings to keep my vision as constant as possible. He said that while it was only natural for my tastes to mature, making little alterations all the time could only confuse the Universe. “You can’t treat it like an idle fantasy,” he admonished. “What you dwell on is what you become.” I did manage to keep a few things constant. First, naturally, Jacob would have nothing to do with it. I might not even let him visit. Second, I wanted there always to be one thing you couldn’t get anywhere else in New York, a new specialty every few months, so that a meal in my restaurant would always be an adventure. An ingredient specially imported for me would be best, but it’s hard to find anything totally new to New York, so in months when I couldn’t find something exotic, I’d have to offer something only I could cook. I was sure that anything I introduced would quickly spread if it proved popular, so I’d always be challenged to find new things. I was an adolescent boy: I didn’t


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

just want a restaurant, I wanted the indispensable restaurant. I planned to call the place “Unique.” Apart from these two ideas, though, nearly everything else on my vision board changed between the ages of twelve, when I first made it, and twenty, when my father died. I knew I wanted an American local food menu, like my father’s, but the particulars varied depending on what I liked cooking or eating at the time. When I fell in love with Korean barbecue I added portable stoves and marinated, thin-sliced venison or ostrich. When I discovered the live poultry market in Sunset Park I thought I should let guests pick their birds like they might pick lobsters elsewhere. When I visited the pupusa and ceviche carts in Red Hook, I planned a menu offering nothing but street food from around the globe. The location, interior décor, and so on changed too. I couldn’t help it. Could I pretend that my desires didn’t shift from twelve to twenty? To whom would I pretend it? Maybe my father was right. Maybe my inconstancy explains why I never did get to open Unique. But I doubt it. My father was a model of consistency through all my years of high school, spending a quarter-hour a day fervently concentrating before an image board with only my picture, a picture of an empty professional kitchen, and the word “RESTAURANT” on it. It didn’t do any more good for him than it did for me. Still, if you dug him up and asked him I think he would still say that I got what I deserved from the Universe, and he had no quarrels with how anything turned out. My junior year of high school his eyesight weakened severely. He went to the doctor for the first time I could remember and found out he had Type 2 diabetes, probably going back years. The doctor told him all the usual things about diet and exercise, but he wouldn’t do anything more than take the glucose-reducing medication


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

they gave him, and unsurprisingly that wasn’t enough. He developed problems in his feet and couldn’t stand in the kitchen anymore. He sat in his office and reviewed the purchases and oversaw the business, but couldn’t cook. It made him miserable. One day he told me that when I finished college, he might not be able to help me launch my restaurant after all. He might not still be around. He went on to say that Oprah would certainly help me, though, if I asked in his name for a startup loan or for business help from one of her many underlings. He showed me an e-mail he’d written to her personal assistant and saved as an unsent draft: in it he explained that he’d gotten sick with diabetes and died, and asked for Oprah’s help on my behalf, in consideration of the many meals he’d fed her. It was the first time he’d talked about dying. That night I cried for an hour. Not long after that he had another big chat with both Jacob and me, to tell us not to bother applying to any private colleges. “We didn’t have a lot of these medical expenses in the family budget,” he said. “We’re facing the recession now, and I’m trying to keep a little cash aside for a second place like you both want. As Oprah says, though, strength comes from our ability to stand up, face resistance, and walk through it.”

Two years later he had a heart attack and died. At the will reading we learned that while there was an account identified in his records as a “second restaurant savings fund,” it held less than a thousand dollars. He’d prepaid his funeral and, as he’d promised, left the restaurant entirely to Jacob.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Jacob told me at once that he would sell the place. I tried to get a business loan to buy it but I couldn’t. The banks were still tight with credit that fall, and while plenty agreed it was a viable business, they had no reason to trust me, a twenty-year-old kid, to manage it. I decided to make that appeal to Oprah, if not to lend me the money personally then to hook me up with a business colleague who could stand with me and reassure a loan officer. When I logged into my father’s e-mail account, though, I found the drafts folder empty. The e-mail I wanted was in Sent Messages, with Jacob’s name inserted where mine had been. Instead of asking for help with a new restaurant, now it asked for help finding a buyer for the existing one, plus a letter of recommendation for college transfers. Jacob had supposedly gone back to Albany, and I couldn’t get hold of him at all to yell at him. He didn’t answer my calls or e-mails, not even the ones where I begged him at least to tell the staff what he had planned. Eventually an RA in his dorm informed me that he’d left, but I couldn’t track down where he’d gone. I still don’t know how he got our father’s e-mail password in the first place, or how long he’d had the idea to do what he did after my father was gone. Big Ike was in decline for a long time. Jacob must have imagined his death over and over. I know I did. He sold the restaurant to a guy who owned half a dozen in Manhattan already and wanted a toehold in Brooklyn. I left it at once but held onto our apartment. It was rentstabilized. Jacob had been gone for more than a year already, up at school except for a few holidays while I studied at Brooklyn College, so I was used to having the room to myself. It took a while to get used to having all the rooms, to it being empty and quiet all


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

the time. I adopted a cat and closed up my father’s bedroom for six months. When I absolutely needed the money, I rented it to a medical resident from Methodist. The new restaurant owner cut off the contracts we’d had with regional farms and fishermen. I know because they called, begging me to do something. Over the course of a few years, he transformed the menu until it was just like any the other midscale bistro or café: a few salads with chèvre or endive, a selection of wraps and panini, a salmon entrée, a couple of pasta dishes, and a steak no one ever ordered.

My father hadn’t left me completely broke. All his personal savings and retirement stocks and the like came to me, I guess in compensation for leaving Jacob the business. That totaled about $30,000. I could have sold the one other thing he left me—the exclusive right to use his name on a new restaurant—but I didn’t think it’d be worth much to anyone else and anyway I didn’t want to. My father’s local-food friends helped me get jobs and I worked in kitchens through the rest of college, and then kept right on working in kitchens after college. The first couple of years I hated Jacob. While our father was still dying, before I’d even begun to figure out how to grieve, he’d stolen everything from me all over again. No one got on Oprah’s show with the same sob story twice, and Jacob had used ours up. What’s worse, he didn’t need to. I’d have paid him just as much, if I could have gotten a loan. He’d screwed me for no reason, and he must have known it. I made a vision board with pictures cut from boxing and MMA magazines, all photos of losers, bloodied and unconscious, and across them I wrote JACOB. For months I asked the Universe for the chance to hurt him. But it turns out that the Universe doesn’t


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

actually give you what you want merely because you want it. If there are powers in the Universe doling out favors, they do it arbitrarily, even fancifully. I’m sure I wanted our restaurant just as much as Jacob. He didn’t even want it, he only wanted the money. Yet he got it, I didn’t, and I didn’t get a crack at him either. Eventually, though, Jacob faded from my mind. I didn’t forgive him, but other things became important in my life and I stopped thinking about him as much. I suppose you could say that after my father’s death I finally came out. Or you could just say that after my father died, there wasn’t anyone left who mattered for whom I was in the closet. My high school friends had all moved out of the city or at least out of my ambit, and the new people I met were other cooks, still mostly Mexican immigrants with whom I downplayed my gayness without actively hiding it; waiters, who were all gay actors and mostly, it seemed, willing to sleep with me; their friends I met at parties and bars; and a few Brooklyn College students, who didn’t care. In other words, my sexuality abruptly shifted from a theoretical secret to a very real and open part of me, and I loved it. I loved the ease and safety I felt late nights in bars or dance clubs, submerged in other men. And of course I was finally having sex, and I loved that too. I loved touching a bicep, or shoulder, or thigh, and feeling it tense with excitement, and I loved the way my own body tensed sympathetically. I loved the velvetsoft feel of a cockhead against the roof of my mouth. I loved having an orgasm drawn out of my core by a man, how utterly different it was from producing it myself. For a year or so I let myself gorge on sex, sleeping with a couple of guys a week. I was young and decent-looking, and there was Craigslist.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

I grew out of it. Not out of sex, but out of fascination with it. I graduated college and got to work on making a career of cooking. I found jobs where I could learn from good chefs or kiss influential ass and started to climb. I fell in love and moved in with a boyfriend in my mid-twenties, broke up with him in my late twenties.

That whole time I heard nothing from Jacob. Then, when I was thirty-one or thirtytwo, he published a book. A cookbook, all recipes of my father’s. Lost Secrets of the Legendary Ike’s. He’d gone back to Oprah, too, and gotten a testimonial for the cover: “This was the best food I ever ate outside of my own momma’s Mississippi kitchen.” I wasn’t as enraged as I would have been ten years earlier, but I was irritated. I called a lawyer to see if I could stop it and he said no, unless the will specifically said otherwise, Jacob had the right to sell our father’s ideas. The best I could do was demand a share of the royalties. He thought I’d probably win that case and offered to take it on contingency. I told him to go ahead and Jacob settled right away, sent me a nice check. We didn’t speak directly. Our lawyers handled it.

More time passed. Jacob got his own little corner of the Oprah empire, a section of devoted to Big Ike’s Best Healthy Meals, not that Big Ike had been anything like healthy himself when he was alive. I got to be second chef in a moderately famous chef’s kitchen. Four years after we settled the lawsuit, I received an e-mail.
Subject: Coming to town Do you know it’s been fifteen years since dad died? York in a week and have a new thing you might hate. I’m coming to New I want to talk to


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215 you about it before we both run up legal bills again. dinner, just name the place and time. Jacob Let me buy you

It took me a while to answer it. He wanted something from me, whatever it was, but did I want anything from him? I no longer cared to hurt him. I couldn’t muster the anger anymore. Finally I decided that yes, I did want something. I wanted to forgive him. I had friends, and I loved them, but I had no family. I wanted my brother back. I couldn’t forgive him straight out, though. He needed to apologize first for what he’d done, going all the way back to his first act of extortion when we were twelve. He couldn’t trade that apology for the thing he wanted from me, either. It had to be sincere. So one week later I reserved a table for two at my favorite restaurant in New York, an authentic Thai place in Woodside. I got there early and had the hostess seat me in the garden, way back in the corner under the dogwood. It was spring and the tree was in bloom, dripping white petals onto the ironwork tables and red tiles. The fountain in the center of the patio burbled. I ordered and drank a Singha and was on my second when Jacob arrived. He’d always been much skinnier than me when we were young. Now he was thickening into middle age. Though I couldn’t say he had a gut, exactly, his waist was clearly broader than his hips and the early fat accumulating in his cheeks and neck made his whole head look bigger, more severe. His arms and legs were big too, muscular. I’d always been the heavier and manlier of us, but today he outweighed me by at least twenty or thirty pounds. We shook hands. His fingers and palm were fleshier than mine too. He wore a wedding band. I pointed at it. “You’re married?”


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

“Twice, actually. Kids in both marriages. Two in the first, one in the second.” “You didn’t invite me either time.” I tried not to show how it upset me. He should have invited me. Not because he owed it to me but because despite anything else, I should see him getting married. “The first time wasn’t long after Dad went, when you still hated me. The second time, well… we hadn’t spoken in years.” As the seconds ticked on, it began to feel uncomfortable that we were still standing, facing each other across the table. I didn’t want to sit first, though, and leave him looking down on me. “You didn’t know I hated you,” I said. “You ran before you could ask me anything.” “You say that. But you did hate me, didn’t you?” At last he pulled out his chair and I slid into mine automatically. He didn’t join me at once. He stood over me for a few seconds, taking his seat only a split-second before I grew fed up enough to say something. I wondered if he was still the same Jacob who could make people love and follow him, or if cheap manipulation was all his social power now. “Let me get business on the table first,” he said, spreading the menu open in front of him. “I want to branch out from the cookbooks and the website and launch a restaurant called Legendary Ike’s in Chicago. Frankly the recipe stuff I’m doing has almost nothing to do with Dad anymore, and neither will the restaurant. It’s just branding. But Dad left you the right to the name, so I need to buy that from you.” A waitress walked by. He waved to get her attention and then gestured at my beer to indicate he wanted one for himself. “There’s no reason for you to say no except for being angry, which is why I thought I’d better see you in person. I’ll make you a fair offer if you’ll listen to it.”


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

I put my hands on the table framing my bottle and pushed it left, right, left between my fingertips. “When you got the money and the recommendation letter, where did you go?” Let him wait for his answers. Mine first. “Cornell, then Stern for business school, then Chicago.” He’d come back to New York for a couple of years, then. It would have been when I’d started dating Christopher. Before he’d moved in with me, Chris had shared a tiny apartment on 16th and Sixth Avenue with two other people, and when the weather was nice we’d sit in Union Square or Washington Square Park and smoke cigarettes, alternating with tokes from a one-hitter. Any of those days in Washington Square I might have seen Jacob on his way to or from class with the rest of NYU’s buttoned-up young capitalists. But all year we’d missed each other—maybe even two years. Unless he’d seen and ducked me. The waitress brought Jacob’s beer and lingered, flipped open her notepad expectantly. “What do you recommend?” Jacob asked me. “You don’t mind sharing, do you?” I said. “Any of the whole fish dishes and the larb.” He nodded and handed her the menu. She scribbled. “Also green curry and two sticky rice,” I told her. She took my menu too and retreated. Jacob drank some beer, set it down beside his plate, and picked at a corner of the label. “So after business school you went to Chicago,” I prompted.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

He nodded. “I got engaged to this history grad student. She was from Chicago. The night before I met her I had a dream and Oprah was in it. Her hair was all bouncy and feathered the way it used to be when she had a weave. You remember the early days when we watched with Dad? She said I was about to meet the woman I would marry and that she, Oprah, would make sure I became rich and successful, that she’d help me get whatever I wanted. That’s why I married Leah. I never loved her; I was never even attracted to her. But she did help me get rich. We moved to Chicago and I went to work for her father. He had this wireless broadband provider he was trying to get off the ground. He made me a deal: I could keep the profits, minus overhead and debt financing and all of that, in any of the sales territories he gave me. I thought it sounded great. Then he gave me all the worst territories. How much do you know about Chicago?” I shook my head. “It’s far more segregated even than New York. There’s rich white neighborhoods that buy broadband and poor black or Latin neighborhoods that can’t afford to buy diddly shit. I got pile number two. But I screwed him right back.” He took a swallow of beer and grinned viciously, and for the first time I saw the young Jacob’s personality through this older Jacob’s features. “He didn’t say I had to make any profit. I borrowed as much as I could and bought up all this slum property, put up wireless towers all around on his nickel, and left it wide open, let people sign in for no charge at all. I got white kids moving in for the free broadband, and once my property values went up a few ticks I sold everything to a REIT.” He tilted his head and lifted his left hand, palm facing out. “I’m telling you this like it happened fast, but really it took seven years. The whole time I’ve got to be making


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

interest payments on all these mortgages, and even when the buildings have tenants they don’t always bring in enough to cover themselves. The last two years of the seven I’m trying to figure out how, if I ever make any profits, I can hide them from my wife. Because by then I’m having an affair with her sister, and sooner or later that can only end in alimony and child support. It was damn stressful, it was a ton of trouble, and I never knew if after all that it was going to work.” He shook out his napkin emphatically. “But it did. I cleared more than three and a half million and got it free of my ex-wife.” He put the napkin in his lap and leaned forward. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” he asked, all sincerity or faking it. “I didn’t do the cookbook because I needed money.” I gave him back a flat stare. “I never thought you needed it. I assumed you just wanted it, the same way you wanted the money from selling Dad’s restaurant. You didn’t need that either. Look at me. I didn’t have it. I did well enough.” That pushed him away. He leaned back in his chair, carrying his bottle with him so he could drink instead of answering. The waitress came and set our appetizer plate of larb, a spicy mincemeat salad, on the table between us. Without shifting his weight Jacob stretched out his arm, hooked a finger over the plate’s rim, and drew it toward him. He picked up a fork and slid half the pile of meat onto his own plate. “I didn’t do the book for the money at all, wanting or needing,” he said. “I did it because of Oprah.” That was frustrating. I’d brought up his second great theft, the restaurant sale, and not only had he not taken the chance to apologize, he’d stayed right on what he wanted to talk about: himself. Was he sidestepping the topic of the restaurant because he felt guilty


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

and defensive, or had it just made no impression on him at all? Couldn’t he even offer a pro forma apology? How could I forgive him if he wouldn’t? I pressed it. “You went back to Oprah. Did she ever know that message from Dad was supposed to be about me?” Again he ignored it. “I didn’t go back to her. She came to me.” He pushed the appetizer plate away. “This was after I separated from Leah but before I moved in with Rachel. I had my own loft on the West Loop, not so far from Oprah’s studio. One day I come home, from negotiating a building sale I think, and see that the door’s been forced with a crowbar or something like that. It’s open about an inch. Even then I remember saying to myself, ‘Don’t go in. Call the cops.’ But I open the door to look inside, and exactly like a cartoon this long black arm reaches out and drags me inside. I don’t have time to react. Right away I’m grappling with this incredibly strong black guy. He’s got his arm clamped around my throat and I’m thinking that’s it, some burglar on speed is going to kill me. I’m not a fighter at all, you know? I kept saying I should sign up for jiujutsu classes but I never did. And it turns out that none of the things you see in the movies—like snapping your head back to smack the guy in the nose, or elbowing him in the ribs—none of that stuff works in real life. “But I got lucky. The guy doesn’t know what he’s doing either. See, after this happened I took the classes and I learned that you can make someone black out right away if you clamp down on the carotid arteries.” He touched his throat immediately to the left and then to the right of his windpipe. “My guy is just trying to cut off my air and it’s not working perfectly, so I’m lasting for minutes instead of seconds and dragging him around because I’m desperate and trying whatever I can. He catches his foot on


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

something and trips. We both fall down. He lands on his shoulder.” Jacob reached across his chest with his left hand and thumped the top of his right scapula. “It makes his hands come apart. I land on top of his arm, meaning he can’t choke me again.” He broke off because the waitress was approaching with a tray. She set it near us on a folding stand and transferred food from it to our table: two fist-sized wicker baskets, each containing a plastic-wrapped brick of rice; a crispy-skinned red snapper, slit down the stomach, lying on its side in a light brown sauce with strips of chili pepper and shredded lemongrass and ginger piled around and atop it; and a plain ceramic bowl threequarters full of pale green coconut milk, in which swam snow peas, carrots, split tiny eggplants, and strips of chicken. It prompted me to take my half of the larb and start eating, and as soon as I did I realized that sitting so long drinking beer had made me sharply hungry. For the next few minutes I concentrated on my food. “Anyway,” Jacob continued when the waitress was gone, “now we’re rolling on the floor for a couple of minutes. At some point I feel something soft, and I look and it’s a breast. I manage to scramble away and get on my feet, and I look around, trying to get oriented, find the door and run back out of there, and finally I see this woman who’s been all over me. It’s Oprah.” He paused at looked at me to see if I was registering the proper astonishment. I might not have, because my mouth was full. “She’s wearing white sweatpants and this long-sleeved gray Lycra athletic top, and she’s definitely in a fit phase, not a fat phase. I can see her biceps through the Lycra and this whole lower rib and belly area”—he circled his hand in the air before his own paunch—“is solid like a marble column. Of course I’m wondering, Why the hell is Oprah Winfrey in my apartment, trying to choke me out? I can’t ask her because she comes right at me again,


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

and now I’m confused and off balance. When I thought she was some crackhead I fought desperate, trying everything I could to do damage and get free. But now that I know who she is I’m not really scared anymore that she’ll kill me, and I don’t want to hurt her too badly either. So subconsciously I guess I ease up, and that means she’s all over me, pretty much kicking my ass. Before I know it I’m flat on my belly and she’s sitting on my back. She’s got my leg locked over her shoulder or some damn thing and she’s twisting so it feels like my groin is about to rip open and my balls are being crushed into the floor. It hurts like hell and I’m begging her to stop, and she does back off a little bit and tells me to shut up. “‘I’ve been following your career a long time,’ she says. ‘When you help someone achieve, that person becomes your representative to the world. I helped you achieve so I’ve been following your career. And I have to think to myself, it doesn’t seem like this man is representing me very well. I know that if I come and offer that to you, you might agree with me to my face. But then when you’re alone, later on, you might forget about me and not make the kinds of changes you need to make. I’ve been following your career. I know a little bit about you. And it’s okay. Sometimes we need somebody to really shake us up and make us pay attention. You still have to walk your path yourself, but I can help you find a better map.’” Jacob picked up one of the bricks of rice and unwrapped it as he talked, worked a clump free onto his plate, and served himself some fish on top. “‘When you act like there is no right or wrong except what you can get away with,’ she says, ‘you find that you can lose everything important to you if you come on someone faster or more devious. I think maybe you needed someone to show you that. I think you needed someone to shake you up and make you pay attention. So I’m doing it


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

myself. One middle-aged sister done whupped your behind to show you it ain’t so hard to find someone who can beat ya.’” That last sentence he delivered in a stereotypically black accent, the way I remembered Oprah would drop into her sassy black voice for a sentence or two herself to punctuate a point. He put a forkful of fish and rice in his mouth and talked around it. “That’s it. She said if I did something worthwhile, like a cookbook of my father’s recipes, she’d bring me on the show and give it her blessing. So that’s what I did, and my life totally changed. I went on the show. I bought into the Oprah thing, The Secret and all, just like Dad.” He attacked his food in earnest then, and the conversation slowed. He told me a few more things about his life, mostly about his kids. It sounded as if he were a great father to the youngest. There was fire and excitement in him even when he described mundane things like her school and her friends. It also sounded like he was a mediocre to terrible father to his sons from his first marriage, whom he talked about diffidently, in generalities. I tried to tell him some of my own history and accomplishments too, but he asked few questions and those obviously from pained politeness. At the end of the meal he asked me again about the restaurant rights and I said yes, he should send the papers to my lawyer and we’d figure out a price. I’d sworn beforehand that I wouldn’t make him trade an apology for the favor he wanted, and I was sticking to that. He was right, after all: if I took my anger out of it, there wasn’t any reason to deny him. We walked to the subway together. I was going back to Brooklyn and his hotel was in Manhattan but we had the same train, I was just farther down the line. It was a Tuesday, that being one of the few evenings I could take off, so the post–rush hour train


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

into the city wasn’t crowded. We got seats and didn’t talk for a while. I don’t know what was going through his head, but I was mainly thinking about whether or not to make a last attempt to force a confrontation. If I took him at what he’d said so far he came off as basically selfish, and he’d never hinted at contrition. So on the one hand I thought maybe I should give him one last shot to redeem himself before he returned to Chicago. On the other, I had no reason to think it would turn out at all well, and plenty of reason to think it wouldn’t. I made the choice under the East River, just past Roosevelt Island. “You know, you say your life changed after Oprah wrestled you, but I don’t see how,” I said. “You’re the same as when we were kids. You aren’t sorry for the way you were then. I’d hoped you’d have turned into a good man.” “I’m not a good man?” Jacob seemed bemused rather than insulted. “I don’t know what you think that means. It’s abstract. When you get to be a believer like me these things get much more concrete.” He paused. “You see, there’s two halves to getting what you want in this world. One half is on the person’s side: wanting it. I do the steps from the Secret and make the Universe pay attention. The other half is what the Universe chooses to do once it hears you. That’s where I’m lucky, because the Universe likes me specially. At least that’s what Oprah says. Being a good man, whatever that is, all that moral stuff—it’s not about that. It’s about living a good life, taking the lessons the Universe has prepared for me about how to be happy. I do more charity and good deeds, sure, because it makes me feel good. But I don’t look back and beat myself up over old mistakes, or even worry about if they were mistakes. Get me?”


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

“Yes.” I understood him. He’d become a believer in a system that vindicated whatever he chose to do. He wasn’t a good man. But I still wanted him to love me, to be proud of me, to celebrate me as a brother. Maybe it was a vestige of his old magnetism, that magical power he’d had to make everyone love him best. I didn’t even really need the full apology. If he could just show a little bit that he cared what I thought, that he wanted my brotherhood too, I could make myself believe that later, when we were comfortable together again, he might say he was sorry. Only he wouldn’t show me even that, and I couldn’t think of how to make him. He hadn’t even said he’d missed me. “I don’t want to let it end on a downer,” I said at last, hoping to buy more time for him to show me he wasn’t as bad as I now knew. “What if we get a drink near your hotel?” “I have an early meeting,” he said. “I’ll call you tomorrow or the day after for brunch.”

He did not call the next day or the day after. I’m not sure he even stayed in New York past that night. When I called his hotel the second day he’d already checked out. Aside from letters and faxes from his lawyer, I never heard from him again. Many years later I met his oldest son from his first marriage, who told me that as I’d suspected, Jacob had been a lousy father to him and his brother, though not as bad as he’d been to the three other children he’d fathered out of wedlock with two different women. He’d given those three no attention and money only when the courts forced him. For his two oldest sons he’d at least done basic things like help with college, though they were


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

always acutely aware of how much more he lavished on their younger half-sister. He sent her to expensive private schools, bought her designer clothes and a Prius for her sixteenth birthday. “He liked her a lot better than the rest of us, and he didn’t think there was any reason he should hide it,” Reuben told me. By then Jacob was celebrated as the chef who, as part of Oprah’s Best You program, taught women coast to coast to eat simply and infuse their meals with spirituality. He was the father of a now nationwide, quasi-religious Real Food movement. I’d grown reasonably successful myself. While I didn’t own a restaurant I did run a highly regarded one. But Jacob was a national icon. The Universe gave Jacob everything he asked for and more. No matter how badly I wanted to, I never could forgive him.