The trouble started, as it always did, as soon as we entered the restaurant. Unless there was a table ready for him right away-unless he could stride, uninterrupted, right up to the table-there was always a scene.
“Name?” the maitre d’ asked. I cringed.
“Salk,” he said testily. He hated it when people failed to recognize him. “Jonas Salk. You want me to spell that for you?”
“Salk…” the maitre d’ said, scanning his book.
“Yes, Salk,” Jonas said. “S-A-L-K. You know-the guy who cured polio? A little disease you may have heard of. Killed kids. Made it so they couldn’t walk. Polio. Here, I’ll spell that for you, too. P-O-L-I-fucking-O. Now where the fuck’s my table?”
The maitre d’ flushed. Then, he did what nearly everyone did when Jonas got going. I’d seen it so many times, I could practically time it to the millisecond: First, they’re angry. Then-and you can watch their expression change as this happens — they think better of it, and decide to hold their tongues, because this was, after all, the guy who’d cured polio.
“Certainly, sir,” the maitre d’ said, his voice strained, almost strangled, from the effort it took not to deck Jonas. “Right this way.”
Then Jonas stalked to the table.
Before he even pulled in his chair, he’d ordered an excellent bottle of the cabernet. Then he turned to me and asked, “So, what’ll you be having?” I ordered a club soda. I always did. Someone had to drive.
Needless to say, the wine took too long to arrive, at least as Jonas saw it, and he browbeat the wine steward for a good five minutes. It was the usual, “When-I-cured-polio-I-was-in-the-lab-16-hours-a-day,-racing-to-keep-one-more- child-from-dying-a-slow-and-painful-death-and-all-you-have-to-do-is-(fill in the blank)-and-you’re-doing-a-pretty-piss-poor-job-of-it-so-far” speech. He capped it with a favorite rejoinder: “It’s thanks to me that your legs work at all, pal, so make sure that when you’re bringing something to me, you come running.”
I’d known Jonas from our med school days together, and had seen him through the grim days in the lab and the heady days of the vaccine, when he was swarmed by the press and the groupies. But all of those were behind us now: There were adults today who’d never feared polio as kids, and it annoyed Jonas no end. I’d grown to despise our monthly dinners together, but couldn’t figure out a way out of them. Perhaps, I thought, if I claimed to have the flu. . .
I snapped out of this reverie just in time to see my friend heave a plate of salad at a waitress. “Save the iceberg for the proles, toots,” he barked. “I want some quality greens. I wouldn’t feed that shit to one of my lab rats. You know — the rats who helped me in my quest to wipe out polio. The rats who kept you out of an iron lung. Mesclun greens, and step on it!”
Just then, I saw a familiar face over his shoulder, and felt ill: Sabin had entered the restaurant. Of all the nights for him to come here. . . of all the places for him to choose to dine. . . I knew that they were bound to cross paths — the world was too small for them to avoid each other forever. But why did it have to happen here? Why now? Why, in short, when I was around?
Jonas caught my staring, and whipped his head around. He registered Sabin’s presence, stared for a second or two, then picked up a breadplate and whipped it at Sabin’s head with deadly precision. Sabin — always a nimble athlete — ducked, and the plate shattered against the wall behind him. “Nice to see you, too,” Sabin said.
“How’s it going, Al?” Jonas said. “Gee, you look shorter somehow. Oh! I know what it is: You’re not standing on the shoulders of giants today.”
“Fuck you, Salk.”
“No, Al,” Jonas retorted. “Fuck you. Come up with any other great ideas lately? Hey, I know! Howsabout you claim you invented the TV? Or electricity?”
“Howsabout I claim I gave your mom a little injection, if you know what I mean.”
This got Jonas steamed: He hated it when people talked about his mother. He went for a low blow.
“So, Al, you gonna have some coffee? Watch out for the sugar lumps, will ya? Can never be too sure they won’t give you polio, thanks to your vacc-”
By this time, Sabin had already tackled Jonas, and was grinding his face into the carpet. Other diners looked on, aghast. Jonas, who’d been a wrestler in high school, wrapped his legs around Sabin, flipped him, and began to pummel him. He was about to club him with the pepper mill when I grabbed his arm.
“C’mon, Jonas,” I said, looking for a way to calm him down. “Everyone knows you’re the better doctor. No need to do this.”
This seemed to do the trick. He stood, brushed himself off, and stalked out of the restaurant, leaving Sabin quivering on the floor. Jonas turned to me, his face marred by rug burns: “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go someplace where they know how to treat the guy who cured polio.”