Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Book Excerpt: Adam Ross’s Ladies and Gentlemen

With the opening pages of “Middlemen,” Adam Ross gives Chapter 16 readers an early look at his forthcoming story collection

In the fall of 1980, my parents enrolled me in seventh grade at the Trinity School—a tony, Episcopal private school in Manhattan that was all boys until ninth grade. So my two best new friends, Abe Herman and Kyle Duckworth, were thirteen- year- olds on the cusp of, among other things, coeducation.

Beanpole thin, with a chest so concave a dog could lap water from its indentation, Abe Herman had the gift of imparting debilitating self- consciousness upon anyone within ear- or eyeshot. We sat directly across from each other in English (discussion- based classes at Trinity were taught in the round), and I often marveled at how Abe could unseat the confidence of even the most assured students simply by shaking his head and piteously staring at them while they spoke; or, if he was really in the mood for disruption, shielding his eyes with his hand, as if stupidity that intense could somehow blind him, and looking in the opposite direction. You might think this was motivated by envy, that Abe was shy or inarticulate and his scorn was a preemptive strike against those who would scorn him, but that wasn’t the case. Abe was brilliant.

Annoyed by his behavior and frustrated by his ability to silence anyone in class, our teacher, Ms. Cheek, would pounce on him in response, assuming an advantage in the element of surprise: “Well, then, Mr. Herman, what do you think Marc Antony is telling his countrymen here?” And Abe, leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed, would smile broadly to show off a mouth fat with braces. “I think that Antony is using irony to stab Brutus and Cassius the way they stabbed Caesar. I think he’s using his sharp tongue to rip their honor to shreds.” He would stare at Ms. Cheek, who, defeated like the rest of us, could only shake her head in unintentional mimicry.

But he was thin, as I said, and small—doomed, by cosmic justice, to a post–high school growth spurt, denied height when he needed it most—so outside the ordered confines of class he was often singled out for beatings by larger kids who were sick of his lip. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Abe getting slammed into a locker between periods, ineffectually pounding on the back of whoever had tackled him, delivering rabbit punches and liver shots so weak you’d think he was throwing the fight from the start. We met when I lifted Sammy Munson and Ad Schacht off him, then knocked their heads together and kicked both in their respective asses with a karate one- two. (After seven years of public school, I knew a thing or two about winning a fight.) “It’s about fucking time,” Abe mumbled from the floor. He looked down at his shirt, buttoned his sprung buttons, then tamped his high head of thick, brown hair. “Well, help me up,” he said, sticking out a hand. After I pulled him upright, he gave his lapels a tug and slapped my shoulder. “Come to my bar mitzvah next weekend,” he said, and hurried to class.

“You’re a man whether or not you’re bar mitzvahed. You’re a man,” he said, “because you’ve turned thirteen.”

I’d been to a number of bar mitzvahs earlier that year—bar mitzvah receptions, I should say. These parties were held in places like Leonard’s of Great Neck or the Tudor House, with entire floors dedicated to video games like Missile Command and Sea Wolf, all with unlimited credits, so the kids would leave the parents alone to drink for as long as possible. But Abe’s was the first bar mitzvah ceremony I’d ever been to, and I was awed. The raised bimah, with the drawn curtains of the Holy Ark behind it, reminded me of a stage. I had to wear a yarmulke, and I dug the costumes of the synagogue—the square tefillin like a little top hat, the tallith a varsity scarf. I was impressed by Abe’s fluency as he sang up there, the force and clarity with which he chanted the haftarah, how deep his voice sounded as he read the prayers—not that I knew the names of these rites or understood much of what I was seeing at the time. I understood only that because Abe had gone through this ceremony, he wasn’t just the center of attention, he was now a man. It was held in the morning, and afterward, all of us—Abe’s whole family and Kyle, the only other guest Abe’s age besides me—went to lunch at Adam’s Rib. I kept a loose tally of the gifts he received, the checks big and small, and, vaguely jealous of the whole affair, at dinner that night I asked my father, who was Jewish, why I had not been bar mitzvahed. Did that mean I wasn’t a man?

“No.” He wouldn’t look at me. He was focused on his baked chicken. He liked to eat the bones, which he was in the process of destroying. “You’re a man whether or not you’re bar mitzvahed. You’re a man,” he said, “because you’ve turned thirteen.”

So was I a Jew?

“Strictly speaking,” my mother jumped in, “no.”


“Because I’m not. And it comes from the mother.”

“What are you, then?”

“I was raised Methodist, but I don’t believe in organized religion. Or God, for that matter.”

I let that conversation quietly sail by.

“Can I be a Jew?” I asked, thinking it was like joining a sports team or deciding on an activity at camp. My mother sat forward, folded her arms across her chest, and leaned her elbows on the table. She stared at my father and shook her head sadly, as if to say, I told you this was coming. And my father, who could look off conflict with the best pro quarterback, said, “We’ll talk about it”—like that would put an end to this.

I looked at myself constantly. I was looking at myself now … and at my parents’ profiles. I had my father’s curly hair, though it was brown, not black, and his unevenly aligned eyes, the right set slightly lower than the left like some Cubist deformity. I also had a big head.

We ate in silence for a long time. You have to picture our dining room. First of all, it wasn’t actually a dining room. It was an area just off the kitchen—a sort of gigantic nook. There was a long row of windows to our right. We lived on the Upper West Side, and the view from our third-floor apartment was primarily of the giant blue-brick Con Ed power station across 66th Street. To make the space seem bigger, my parents had installed a mirror that covered the facing wall, which had the side effect of making me horribly vain. I looked at myself constantly. I was looking at myself now—my brother was sleeping over at a friend’s house, so I had an unobstructed view—and at my parents’ profiles. I had my father’s curly hair, though it was brown, not black, and his unevenly aligned eyes, the right set slightly lower than the left like some Cubist deformity. I also had a big head. I don’t mean in terms of ego, just outsized, blockish, like The Thing’s or John Travolta’s. (You were a forceps baby, my mother was fond of saying, as if to regularly remind me that tools were required to pull me from her vagina.) And yet my father and I were both in denial about our proportions. We looked terrible in baseball hats but often broke down and wore them. From my mother, I received her bright blue eyes and, because I could spend hours drawing, zitzfleisch, according to my father. Yiddish, he translated, for “sitting meat,” but clearly not for my curiosity, since I didn’t ask him to teach me any other words. All of this is to say that I knew myself as partly them, physically and temperamentally. But there had to be more.

“Is my name Jewish?”

“Jacob is,” my mother replied, “yes.”

“What about Rose?”

“That’s a stage name,” said my father. He had literally cleaned his plate.

“What’s our real name?”

“That is your real name.”

“What was it before?”

He shrugged his shoulders like he could barely remember. “Rosenberg.”

“I like that,” I said.

“Do you?”

“It’s distinguished.”

“You think?”

“Maybe I’ll change mine back.”

For reasons unknown to me, my mother found this hysterical. So I did what I normally did when I didn’t get a joke and laughed along with her. As for my father, well, he excused himself from the table by saying, “I have to make a call.”

Of course, asking to be Jewish didn’t mean I wanted to be Jewish. That particular night, I just had Jews on the brain. Beyond what I’d seen that morning, I didn’t know a thing about them. And when I told Kyle I wanted to become one, he talked me out of it.

“You don’t want to be a Jew,” he said. “If you became a Jew you’d be a convert.”

“What’s wrong with being a convert?”

“Converts are boring. They only talk about one thing.”

“What do they talk about?”

“Being converts, idiot.”


“Plus everyone wants to kill them.”



“Like who?”

“Like Germans, for one. Palestinians. And I’m pretty sure Egyptians.”

It suddenly made sense to me why my father changed his name.

“Would you really want to be someone everybody else wants to kill?” Kyle asked.

I shook my head.

“Good,” he said. “Then it’s settled.”

Which brings me to Kyle. Close friends called him Kyle, upperclassmen called him Duckworth, but on all athletic fields he was known as Duck. The name was a mark of respect for his speed, like calling a 150-pound Rottweiler Baby. He was one of the city’s top cross-country runners in his age group, a must-pick in the touch football games we played on Trinity’s rooftop AstroTurf, and had a starting slot waiting for him on the high school lacrosse team his freshman year. He was blond and slit-eyed, with high cheekbones and a pronounced jaw, a puka-necklace wearer who, after returning from his Christmas vacations in Barbados, was accused by Abe of bleaching his hair. “It’s the sun and saltwater,” he protested, though his mop was as white as Billy Idol’s. “I swear.” He was also a daring clotheshorse who affected a preppy style at school that flirted with multiple dress-code violations: loafers with no socks (questionable) and corduroys that bordered on jeans; Lacoste shirt (illegal) with the collar turned up, over a turtleneck (legal) and under a seersucker suit or blazer—the various color combinations of which he wore year- round.

But there was something else Kyle had that Abe and I didn’t, and that I confess I coveted, and for which I would have been willing, without hesitation, to forfeit our friendship at the drop of a hat. He had a beautiful older sister.

As for myself, I was “full of potential,” according to my teachers, but didn’t have the mind that Abe had; athletic as well, but no champion like Kyle. I was shorter than the latter, taller than the former. My claim to some distinction was that I was an actor, like my father, who made a living doing voice-overs. I’d done commercials and radio dramas—Mystery Theater, The Eternal Light—and I’d had parts in a couple of motion pictures and Afterschool Specials. Just that fall, I’d starred in a Saturday morning series on one of the networks that was canceled almost as soon as it aired—thirteen and out, as they say. My career wasn’t born of some driving, Jodie Foster–like talent. I just fell into the business. Through a friend of my dad’s, I’d gotten a nonspeaking part in a made-for-TV movie that became a speaking one by the end of the shoot, and that started the ball rolling. Admittedly, I had no real gift besides precociousness and the ability to listen and follow directions—which is all your average child actor needs. Perhaps the fact that show business was, in a manner of speaking, a family business made the whole thing seem relatively banal to me (We can’t live on love alone at City Center, I heard my father say every morning on NPR) and made almost no impression on Abe or Kyle. Still, because I had spent so much time among adults, with grown-up responsibilities and a salary to boot, there were skills I possessed in excess, namely a willingness to perform when necessary and the fearlessness that required. And if there was a quality I had in spades, it was confidence—without correlative achievement, maybe, but confidence nonetheless.

And I had a keen sense, even at the age of thirteen, for the attributes I lacked, so I was drawn to Abe and Kyle for their respective gifts, as they were to me for mine. We became, I like to think, amalgamations: we hoped to steal some of one another’s best, each one the fulcrum to the other two, a threesome in balance, with no individual’s select powers giving him alpha- ascendancy over the rest.

But there was something else Kyle had that Abe and I didn’t, and that I confess I coveted, and for which I would have been willing, without hesitation, to forfeit our friendship at the drop of a hat. He had a beautiful older sister.

Like her famous Born Free counterpart, Elsa Duckworth had a touch of the leonine in her appearance. She was regal in bearing and had a thick head of blond hair that she could poof up into a face- framing mane. At first glance, she and Kyle closely resembled each other, with the same WASPy contours, the strong jaw and ice-blue eyes; but upon closer inspection, and I inspected as closely as secret inspection allowed, she had a fuller face, almost pudgy in the cheeks, with very small, thin lips—an old woman’s lips—and large, round eyes that always seemed wide open. “She looks,” Abe liked to say, “like a stick’s just been stuck up her ass.” Because of her diminutive mouth, lost in that feline face no matter how much lipstick she applied, her eyes were the best place to gauge her reaction to anything or anyone, which in my case was the same dull, sleepy indifference you see on big cats lazing at the edge of the prey-filled, Serengeti Plain.

Kyle, on the other hand, could get a reaction out of his sister almost effortlessly, with an ability I envied bitterly and an approach I instinctively rejected, which was to piss her off. She was a senior at Spence that year and had a curfew of 1:00 a.m., so on the Saturday mornings after I slept over she’d wake up groggy and irritable to the sounds of us playing Atari in the TV room just off the Duckworths’ kitchen. Walking past us on a trip to the fridge in her blue flannel nightshirt, she locked into combat with Kyle almost instantly.

“Do you have to make so much goddamn noise?”

“Fuck you, Elsa,” Kyle said. “Go back to sleep.”

“I’m parched,” she said. “Is there any orange juice?”

“How the hell should I know?”

Watching Elsa open the refrigerator door, I saw her wide eyes widen further.

“You drank all the goddamn orange juice!” Elsa turned her back to us while she opened the top cupboard, her calves flexing as she got on tiptoe to check her hiding place. “And where are my graham crackers? Did you eat my graham crackers, you little shit?”

“Jacob ate some too.”


I raised my hand.

“I bought those for me.”

You didn’t buy them. Mom did.”

“But I put them on the list.”

“But you didn’t pay with your own money.”

“Whatever. I had proprietary rights.”

“Don’t hit me with your SAT words, you fucking cheater.”

Yes, it was quite the scandal. There was a rumor that Elsa had hidden a pocket dictionary in her panties when she took the SATs and consulted it during a bathroom break—an accusation that could jeopardize her hopes of acceptance to Princeton in the fall. (She wanted nothing more than to attend Princeton, where her boyfriend, Toby, was a freshman.) I didn’t know any more details about the alleged cheating, nor, I think, did Kyle, but any mention of it put Elsa on her heels with fury, as it did now, and she stormed out of the kitchen without food or drink.

But I stole a peek at her, or anything having to do with her, every chance I got. The Duckworths’ East Side apartment was laid out like a giant L, with the kitchen and TV room at the bottom end, and the dining room, bedrooms, and living room perpendicular to the long hallway that comprised the column on top. Going to Kyle’s room, I often stopped to gaze in the open door of Elsa’s bedroom if she wasn’t around, at her queen-size bed (fit for a queen) with its radiant peach sheets, at her bulletin board ruffled with swimming and riding ribbons, and, most of all, at the collage of pictures she’d assembled on her far wall.

Collages were big back then, and the few girls I knew at that age combined photographs of models from fashion magazines, cutouts of odd catchphrases (Do it up!), product names, movie stars, lines from jingles (Ooo, la, la, Sassoon!), and logos (the Neptune trident of Club Med, for instance, or pictures of faraway camps they’d attended, like Antigua Adventure or Outward Bound). They glued these onto thin rectangles of cardboard, the items overlapping, the Elmer’s glue warping and buckling them into oddly curved shapes like a 3-D topographical map.

There was a quote running the length of her wall, right below the crown molding, that she’d written out in red marker: GO CONFIDENTLY IN THE DIRECTION OF YOUR DREAMS! LIVE THE LIFE YOU’VE IMAGINED!

But Elsa’s collage was different. It was gigantic, filling the whole peg-boarded wall of her bedroom, as big as the mirror in my parents’ dining room but reflecting her desires instead of her image, the elements secured not with glue but with white thumbtacks. There were spaces between the photographs, between the Spence and Princeton pennants, between the snapshots of her other lovely girlfriends set tastefully apart, as if each party picture were itself a perfect memory to be cherished, the only party like it, these images and icons organized, so far as I could tell, into four discrete quadrants of parties, places, boys, and goals, each demarcated by the exposed gray pegboard beneath—the X/Y axis of Elsa’s identity. There were no models or movie stars on that wall, though there was one picture that I couldn’t help but dream about, shot down-beach, of Elsa in Barbados, sitting cross-legged on a jetty in a bikini, her head thrown back while the bay’s waves lapped the pilings below, her bleached-blond hair hanging down to touch the top of her inverted heart-shaped ass—her own Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread. There was a quote running the length of her wall, right below the crown molding, that she’d written out in red marker: GO CONFIDENTLY IN THE DIRECTION OF YOUR DREAMS! LIVE THE LIFE YOU’VE IMAGINED! And at the wall’s center, at the intersection of the axes, was a picture of her boyfriend that I can conjure even now: Toby has long, curly brown hair that he’s slicked back off his forehead, manelike as Elsa’s; he’s tan, his cheeks reddened by sun and reflected river light after a day of rowing crew; he’s wearing a denim shirt with the top four buttons undone to reveal a hairless chest; he’s standing in a circle of friends, laughing so hard that he’s bent from the waist as they spray him with champagne. Elsa is visible in the background, her small mouth open as wide as possible with laughter, her hands and elbows pressed together in a WASP-girl clap.

“What the hell are you doing?” Kyle said.

“Nothing,” I said, hurrying from Elsa’s doorway to his room.

Most of what I knew about Elsa was from these brief glimpses. East Side life at the Duckworths’ was like that: mysterious, private, and, most of all, roomy. Kyle had his own room, Elsa hers, as did their younger sister, Kirsti, who was barely pubescent and thus invisible to me. There were three bathrooms and a living room that, so far as I could tell by the pristine condition of the furniture, was never used. It was different from life at my West Side apartment, where I shared a bedroom with my brother that abutted my parents’ bedroom, which abutted the living/dining area that in turn abutted the narrow kitchen. I did my homework in a large walk-in closet off the front hall. In the morning my father would walk around wrapped in a towel and at night (or whenever I had friends over, it seemed) in nothing more than briefs, his Fruit of the Looms bulging with what looked like a huge stem of grapes. If the Duckworths’ apartment was in the shape of an L, ours was an O, and we all filled it like the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. Not that I perceived myself as deprived, mind you. Nor did I associate Mr. Duckworth’s blue-suited, Wall Street, seven-to-seven workaday life with greater worldly success than my father’s I-don’t-know-on-Monday-where-I’ll-get-paid-on-Friday freelancer’s life. No, it was simply that in the Duckworths’ world, indifference to one another—even physical avoidance, if necessary—was a spatial possibility, a luxury that was both taken for granted and respected. People in this universe had lives that could remain separate—a fact so remarkable to me that I decided it deserved my full attention. Consequently, I slept over at Kyle’s house every chance I got.

And perhaps because I hung around so often, the day eventually came when I stepped into Elsa’s line of sight.

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