Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Strange Woman

"I was born with a flair for the dramatic but it was ridiculed out of me young. Not eradicated entirely, just driven under the bone, deep into the heart and spleen.” She pauses as if that’s all there is, finishes her Old Fashioned, plucks the cherry out with two long, slender, well-manicured fingers, tilts her elegant head back exposing a long supple neck and plops the glistening cherry in her open mouth. After she chews her cherry she continues, staring into her empty highball glass. “As I grew teeth, I ground them into cracked and splintered nubs. I eventually made tourniquets of the muscles surrounding my head, which I’m sure must feel like the binding of Chinese women’s feet in the old days. I only got to perform when I was assured of privacy. And there was precious little of that. Not that we were a big family. No, there were only the three of us. But there was only room for one performer in that small audience.”

She says this with a straight face and in a fairly convincing southern accent. Her voice is husky and deep, a whisky voice with that rough edge of a smoker. The whole thing sounds like something from a play. She’s addressing this load of crap to some big old John Wayne clone who’s muscled himself into the narrow space next to her at the bar. She’s responding to something he whispered into her right ear. He looks frankly bewildered, furtively glancing around for less complicated prey.

You can tell by the way she looks that what she says just might be true, but she tells it like a bald-faced lie. She’s a head turner. Not flashy-dramatic, but eyecatching. Classy, chiseled face. Even if she isn’t terribly thin or young, she’s got great bones. Her clothes are expensive—quality, well tailored, good fabrics. Her dark brown hair is cut about shoulder length and it gleams. It sways when she turns her head. Everything about her is striking, but quietly so. She’s the sort of woman everyone will turn to look at, but won’t approach. She looks self-contained and needing no one. Part of it’s her age. She’s not young enough to hustle. Not old enough to con. And despite that line of bullshit, and her age, she’s sexy.

The man who sits next to her at the bar wears a huge silver and turquoise watch and matching belt buckle. He’s tall, balding, and beer-bellied. She isn’t wearing any jewelry, no earrings, no wedding band, no watch. They don’t even come from the same planet.

A tall, slender man in his thirties sits at the far end of the bar where it curves around and ends in the wall--something to lean on if need be. It’s the opposite end from where the bartender takes orders from the cocktail waitresses. It’s a good place to watch the waitresses and the rest of the bar clientele. He watches one of the cocktail waitresses for a few minutes. She smiles at the bartender as she rattles off the list of drinks she needs, and the second he turns away and starts working on her order, her face is a total blank, completely losing its warmth, as if a light went off. And just then she catches the slender man watching her. Her eyes lock on his, and he finds it impossible to look away from that completely expressionless stare, as if it were a dare. When she finally turns away from the bar with her two vodka tonics and three 7&7s loaded on that tiny tray, he looks down the bar at the dark haired, older woman who is watching him with a bemused expression on her very interesting face.

She raises one eyebrow and lifts her highball glass in a salute. He lifts his drink to salute her back and feels his face flush. He signals the bartender, and when he looks back up at her, she’s looking in the mirror behind the bar bottles. At first he thinks she’s looking at herself, but her face is completely unstudied, and it occurs to him she’s watching the table behind her. She has the rapt expression of a voyeur. When the bartender takes his order, the slender man also orders one for “the great broad drinking the Old Fashioned,” nodding in her direction.

A small, aged, black man at the piano finishes “‘Round Midnight.” The slender man at the bar pays for the bourbon and soda the bartender sets in front of him and leaves his stool to walk over and put a dollar in the pianist's tip jar.

When he passes the back of the aging beauty’s barstool, she’s still watching the table behind her in the mirror. She sees him pass in front of them. When he walks back, after delivering his compliments to the pianist whose name turns out to be Bill Bailey, she turns her head and flashes him a high voltage smile. He smiles back. She says, “Hard to beat “‘Round Midnight” isn’t it?”
“It’s one of my favorites.”
“Thanks for the drink. Care to join me?”
“Sure, for a minute.”
Still smiling she says “My name’s Judith,” and extends her hand. She has long slender fingers. Her hand is soft but looks like it’s done some work in it’s day. There’s a small round scar just above her little finger. She has what’s called a French manicure.
He turns to her and says, “Would you like to share an order of escargot?”
“I’d love to.” Her lips are red and shiny. Her teeth are white and even. He asks her if she minds if he smokes. “No, not at all, I used to smoke and I’ll enjoy yours vicariously. It’s one of the reasons I still come here. Most places are so sanitized these days. Lord I love Larry Horton for keeping his bar properly smoke-filled.” Again the almost southern accent.
“You know the owner?”
“It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody else and their business. So, since I don’t recognize you, you must be new in town or passing through. There are few strangers at this restaurant, since it’s small and far off the interstate. How did you find our little treasure?”
“I spent the day at Dillard’s today and asked the manager where to eat. She recommended Horton’s, so here I am. Sorry I’m so rude. My name is Martin. Martin Laterite”
“How very French.”
“The name, yes. I’m named after a great-grandfather.” He waves the bartender back and ask for the escargot. He says it will take about fifteen or twenty minutes.
“I noticed that you’re wearing a wedding ring. I find that so touchingly sweet in a man. Were you shopping for your wife?”
“No, I was selling. It’s what I do for a living. I sell women’s designer sportswear.”
“God! What a hellish job for a man.”
“Most women think it would be a great job.”
“Well, unlike most women, I hate stores and shopping. Did you like Lilly?”
“Lilith Jacobson? The store manager?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Yeah, I do. She’s a straight shooter. I like her directness. And I’m grateful to her that I’m not eating at Howard Johnson’s or the golden arches.”
“I play bridge with her once a month. And she does my shopping. God bless her for that. She’s a terrific friend.”
“And a wonderful job she does if the outfit your wearing is her handiwork. It’s Anne Klein Couture and they don’t carry the couture line in-store. So you must be a very special customer.”
“Just a picky friend. Besides, I only buy a few pieces each year. It’s not that much more work to buy special things for me. She knows my wardrobe and only adds what’s missing. I’ll bet she’d be here with you if it weren’t for her husbands business party.”
“Why aren’t you at her party?”
“Because I’m here having a drink with you, Martin.” she raises her glass and sips her drink.
Bill Bailey starts “Straight No Chaser”, and the bartender heads toward them with a plate of escargot. When they’re finished with their appetizer, the hostess comes over and tells him his table is ready whenever he is. He asks Judith to join him for dinner and to his surprise, she accepts. This scares him a little.
They are escorted by the hostess in her long black dress to a table by the only bank of windows in the crowded room. As the two women lead the way he watches them whispering to each other. They bump hips and he notices Judith’s ass. The bias cut of her silk-jersey skirt pulls slightly as she moves from foot to foot and her hips rock from side to side. Martin balls his dangling hand into a soft fist.
They don’t talk much during dinner, but he does find out that she’s married to a college professor who doesn’t have time to go out, so she goes out by herself. He notices she doesn’t wear a wedding ring and says, “Women who don’t wear wedding rings scare me.”
“They ought to scare you. You are married to a woman I presume. What’s she doing while you’re on the road?”
“Staying home with the kids, I hope.” When she laughs he notices her neck is long and white. She eats with relish and makes slightly sexual noises with her first few spoonfuls of lobster bisque. It is a soft moaning noise deep in her throat. He wonder’s why she and her husband aren’t at Lilly’s party.
“Do you work?”
“You mean, do I work outside the home, honey? Yes I do. I’m the wife of a poor college professor, remember? I have to work so I can buy my Anne Klein Couture.” She throws back her head and laughs. Martin thinks about his penis.
After dinner he asks for the check and the waiter says the check has been taken care of.
He says, “No, I’ll get the check! Judith, I travel on an expense account. Please let me get the check.”
She says, “I have nothing to do with this. It’s probably Larry or the guys in the kitchen.”
“Who was it? I’d like to thank him if it was the owner. And I’d want to thank the kitchen anyway for a great meal.”
The waiter says. “I’ve been asked not to say. I’m sorry.”
Martin pulls a twenty out of his wallet and leaves it on the table. He says, “Judith, would you like to have a cognac in the bar and maybe some dessert?”
“Yes, thank you. I will join you for an after dinner drink.”
The waiter, still hovering, pulls her chair out just as Martin reaches for it.
When they head back into the bar, the pianist is playing “For All We Know.”
They order cognac and sip it warmed. The crowd in the bar is thinning. Soon the kitchen crew starts coming in through the restaurant. It’s almost eleven.
Before he gets a chance to invite her to his room, Judith stands up, nods to the two tall very-young men from the kitchen, and says to Martin, “My dates for the rest of the evening are off duty and ready to escort me to my job.”
One of the two young men looks like Mick Jagger when he was twenty-something. The other looks like Jim Morrison alive. They hover a discreet distance from the drinking couple.
Judith leans over and whispers in Martin’s ear, “Our meal was comped by one of those two characters. They’re the chefs, and we’re going to the club I run for this rich boy who lives in Paducah. These guys want to go for the last strip show of the evening. They’d be very cross if I invited you. But I had a lovely evening with you Martin. Maybe next time you’re in town we can do it again.”

©2008 Peggy Pendleton

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The End Of Love

Their blue gray Grand Torino rounds the corner to the house, middle of the block, south side, and all the lights are blazing. It's June 15th at 3:48 AM. She pulls the big quiet car to the curb and cuts the lights, the engine, and sits there listening for a minute. The engine of the Torino pings a few times, but other than that, it's silent. This is later than she usually gets home on Thursday night, or rather Friday morning, but not much. She runs the biggest restaurant, and only disco in town and has turned the dead zone of Tuesday night into big news by transforming the disco into a stage for a variety of themes, but Tuesday night is Male Strip Show with a female-only audience. There's a Jazz trio in the bar for the line of women waiting to get in when the doors open at seven, so the restaurant is packed early and the bar is doing brisk business since the place opened a couple of years ago. She's made the Evening News in Fayetteville and Paducha. So, now, getting home before 3 AM is damn near impossible. But why would all the lights be on? Oh God, she hopes he isn't waiting up for her.

The "he" she doesn't want to wake up, is her husband. He forgot her birthday, three days ago, or four, depending on how you count the days. It doesn't matter to her. On the actual day, she left for work late, giving him time to call, or come home early himself. When she got up, there was no card or gift left behind. No call during the day. So she hung around for awhile kind of loitering in her own home, until she was an hour late for work. It's not up to her to remind him. She never remembers their anniversary. They got married on Bastille Day, but she can't remember the year. So, when her little calender says, Bastille Day, she wishes him happy anniversary. Nothing more.

She walks softly across the wooden porch and tries the door. Oddly, it's locked. She runs her hand around inside the bottom of her bag and finds her keys--they are a large clump, a fistful. Carefully she finds the key by the light shining from the living room window. She hears Dinah when she opens the door. Her small gray female cat is waiting at the door meowing loudly. As Judith enters, Dinah turns and runs for the kitchen. Shit, he didn't feed her. How could he sleep through her nagging? She glances at his chair. It's empty. The ashtray is emptied. His iced tea glass is absent, so it is either in the bedroom with him, or in the kitchen sink. God he's predictable.

She quietly opens the fridge door, and gets out the can of cat food. A small dish is on the floor behind her. She bends to pick it up, turns to the counter and scoops out a couple of spoonfuls. Then, when she picks up the cat food can plastic lid, she notices a few dark leaves and blue red petals in the sink. She picks one petal out of the sink and rubs it gently between her thumb and finger. Unmistakable long stemmed red rose petal. She hates them. Such a fucking cliche. They are overpriced, never fresh, and remind her of all the men she's known who had no imagination. Shit!

She grabs her smokes and lighter, sets her bag and keys down on the kitchen table, and wanders back through the house, her heels percussive in the early morning silence.

The dining room is full of them. How had she not noticed? Selective blindness? There are tall tea glasses with three or four each, wilting high on the stem at each tightly packed bud. These are some droopy assed roses. She turns the corner into the living room and finds them everywhere. Every vase they own is crammed with the thorny stems of too-tall, dark red roses. The end of love, she thinks, but doesn't say aloud. This is what the end of love looks like.

She bends and puts her face in a huge cluster of them and smells the inside of the refrigerator truck they were shipped in. "Jesus, what a waste of money." They'll all be dead by tomorrow night. Just out of curiosity she walks around the room and counts them. Thirty-one long stemmed red roses. Fuck that! She just turned thirty. Asshole doesn't even know how old she is. Can he count? She is four years older than he is by only a month. She sits down hard in his chair and lights a cigarette.

As she smokes, she tries to figure out what that extra rose is all about. Some symbolism? Junior speaks symbolism but doesn't know it himself. It's his secret language. They have been together four years, and she has been listening to this secret language, since he has taken to actually using words less and less. He has non-verbal tells. Not a card player himself, he isn't familiar with the term, but one of his tells is the shifting of his scalp, much like William F Buckley, when Buckley used to do Firing Line. In Junior's case it means, "This makes me uncomfortable" as in, "shut the fuck up!" Another of Junior's tells is the raised left eyebrow. If they are at a faculty dinner party and he wants to go, he finds her, makes eye contact with her, and lifts his left eyebrow. She starts making excuses, claiming she has to get up early, when they all know it's a lie. She thanks the host and hostess, finds Junior and says, sweetly, "Junior, we need to go now." He looks around, smiles weakly, and turns to follow her out. How has she let it get this bad?

The first year they were in Springfield she was expected to join in all the faculty wives' functions. There were teas. There were luncheons. Then there were the dinner parties that Junior had to attend as well. It was at one such dinner party, fairly early on, that she realized she could not keep up this masquerade. Junior was seated across the table from her between two women, one of whom had just asked Junior a question about his writing. He looked up from his serious consideration of his baffling plate, loaded with things he would never eat, if given the option. There was an awkward silence. Heads were turned his direction, all eyes on Junior. He looked up at Judith, wiggled his scalp and raised his left eyebrow. Judith turned to the man next to her left shoulder and said softly, "I think Junior isn't feeling well; we better go home."

Junior had started his serious drinking in Denver. She ignored it. It didn't start until his last year, and he was home from teaching and grading papers. But one night he pissed the bed they shared. When she woke up cold in the middle of the night, she found all her paintings removed from the walls and pilled in a corner. Junior was on the floor, wrapped in a blanket and snoring softly. She woke him up and demanded, "What the fuck is up with the wet spot in the middle of the bed.?" He said, "I mushed have shmilled my ash." This cracked her up. "Well, shmarty smants, why don't you tell me what you did with my paintings while you're sober and inert." He yanked the blanket out of her hand and slammed his head back down on the hard, cold floor. She moved to the guest room, and wondered how long he'd been getting this drunk.

So now she sits in the living room of the the house they rent, in Springfield, Missouri which she pronounces Misery, and looks at this disgusting display of Junior's guilt. Maybe $150, $200 worth of guilt. Probably called in and ordered over the phone. Delivered in a very big, long box this afternoon. They are dying by the second. And so is her love.

Finally she lifts herself out of the Windsor chair and walks, still in her high heeled boots, into Juniors room. It reeks. She can see from the light of the dinning room, that his bed is empty, and there is a very large wet spot in the center. She sees his naked foot and leg extending on the other side of the room, partially hidden by the bed. She walks over, no longer careful of the sound her boots make on the hardwood floor. He is naked, no blanket or sheet clutched to his chest. Flaccid penis lolling to the left. His arms are flung outward, palms up. His black hair is wet and curly around his blue shaded face. Jesus on the cross. She nudges his leg, hard, with the pointy toe of her black, patent leather boot. "Junior." Nothing. He doesn't even flinch. She moves up his body and aims a mighty kick at his rib cage, but cannot make herself follow through. She leans down and touches his shoulder. He is warm so not dead yet . She leans over, catches the faint whiff of vomit, and shouts, "Thanks for the dying roses motherfucker."

The song, "Dance Me To The End Of Love," starts playing in her head. She can't remember who wrote it, but can hear a man's voice singing it, sadly, softly. She rummages in her closet for a couple of suitcases, and starts singing along with the vocalist in her head.

"Dance me with the beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

When she's finished packing, she picks up the phone and makes her plane reservation.

©2009 Peggy Pendleton