The Vices by Lawrence Douglas


An Excerpt

Scene: A Christmas dinner at the apartment of Oliver Vice’s mother, Francizka.  Present are Oliver; his mother, his brother, Bartholomew; a family friend, Bernie; the narrator, and the narrator’s wife, Melissa.  Melissa is wearing a cashmere sweater that she received as a gift from Francizka Vice.


Dinner followed, a lavish Hungarian Christmas meal.

We started with three appetizers: slices of cold goose liver cooked in its own fat, paprika-spiced goat cheese, and biscuits made with pork cracklings. Two main courses followed:  beef goulash simmered with smoked bacon and caraway seeds, accompanied by buttery dumplings; and rolled cabbage leaves stuffed with minced pork and garlic.  Stewed fruit and fresh-baked loaves of crusty potato bread made the rounds.  Wine was plentiful – Bull’s Blood – as was champagne.  Dessert brought thick slices of walnut and poppy-seed strudel, and Hungarian apricot schnapps served in crystal glasses.  Stupendously delicious and filling, the orgy of food weighed down conversation, rendering it intermittent and framed by short, winded sentences.

Unfortunately, we had failed to anticipate that the dinner would showcase pig in such prominence and variety.  Melissa’s best efforts to shift the proscribed meat to the edges of her plate did not escape Francizka’s notice.

“Is there a problem?”

“Everything is absolutely delicious,” Melissa said.  “It’s just – I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t eat pork.”

“You’re on a diet?”

“No, no. It’s religious.”

“Well, then, I should have been told.”  Francizka glared at Oliver, who, in turn, glared at us.  Melissa came from a secular home that had never kept kosher.  But for some years she had avoided pork as a symbolic gesture, a minor concession to a way of life she didn’t fully accept but felt was owed its due.  Still, I wondered which obligation should have superior claim: to one’s religion or one’s host. 

“Come,” said Francizka.  “Hand me your plate and I’ll discard what’s there.”

“No, I love it, really.  I just hope you don’t mind if I leave a little bit over.”

“As you please.  But really, it’s a shame.  All the flavor is in the bacon.  It is smoked in the only true Hungarian delicatessen left in the city.  It’s like listening to an orchestra without the violins, a waste.  You must at least try some of what I’ve made for Ollie.”

As the lone vegetarian at the table, Oliver presided over a plateful of bread, boiled fruit, and a salad of wilted spinach that Francizka evidently prepared for him every year.

Francizka passed Melissa the bowl of spinach, but as Melissa dished herself an obligatory spoonful, the serving spoon slipped from her grasp and crashed to the floor.

“My God, my God!” the mother exclaimed.  “Look!  My spoon!”

The rounded porcelain handle of the serving spoon had cracked off, shattering into a dozen pieces.

“It’s all my clumsiness,” said Melissa, contritely.  “I’m so sorry.  We’ll get you new one, I promise.”

“My dear, this is a piece of antique Zsolnay!  Where could you possibly find another?  It is irreplaceable!”

“I feel awful.  We’ll get it repaired.”

“Repaired?  Look at it – it’s finished, destroyed!”

“We’ll at least try.  Please.  We’ll try.”

Shaking her head at the futility of it all, the mother watched us painstakingly collect the tiny porcelain shards from the handle and place them into a Ziploc bag. 

Desperate to deflect attention from Melissa’s crime, I asked, “Did you do all the cooking by yourself?”

“Have you seen any hidden servants lurking about?”

“And did you learn these recipes from your mother?”

“My mother?” Francizka laughed, but her lips turned down in a frown.  “My dear, the only times my mother set foot in the kitchen was to make sure that the cooks weren’t stealing meat.”

I glanced at Melissa.  She secretly made a gesture of shooting herself in the temple, her left hand pantomiming the exit wound.

The spirit of the disaster threatened to darken Francizka’s mood for the remainder of the meal.  A heavy silence descended upon the table.  Oliver barely lifted his gaze from his plate.  Ever since we’d arrived, my friend, the formidable young philosopher, had been a thing diminished; now the pork and spoon calamities left him withdrawn, virtually catatonic. Bernie smiled at us helplessly.  A feeling of embarrassment gripped me as well, as my mind failed to locate a reliable topic of conversation.  All at once, though, Francizka exclaimed, as if everyone but herself needed cheering up, “Come, let’s not lose our appetites over a silly spoon!  Not after what I’ve been through in my life.  Let’s raise our glasses to old friends and new, and drink to peace and to health.”  She repeated the toast in Hungarian.  “Now, who can I interest in seconds?”

It was a crucial intervention.  Talk didn’t exactly revive, but we all shared in the restored cheer, even Oliver, who suddenly said to Melissa, “I remember when my mother used to wear that sweater, the one you have on.”

“So do I,” chimed in Bartholomew.  “Twigs liked to wear it to the Met.”

“My boys have such marvelous memories,” boasted Francizka. 

But it seemed like the power of something other than memory was on display.  Mel looked beautiful in the Chanel top, and in their pleased glances, it was as if the brothers saw in my wife a younger version of their own glamorous mother.  I couldn’t suppress the feeling that this transposition pleased Francizka, perhaps had been her aim.

Our eating slowed, though not Bartholomew’s.  He cut himself thick pieces of potato bread, speared wedges of butter, and, breaking up the bread, used the buttery chunks to mop up the bacon grease and the juices from the pork, venison and boiled fruits.  His aggressive bloated chewing was punctuated with gasps of satisfaction.  Sauce beaded his moustache; he dabbed it away with his napkin, masticating continuously. Far from concerned, Francizka watched her son with an expression of maternal pride.  She made do with a birdlike portion.