The Cost of a Good Day’s Lunch

It’s not often that he goes to Gideon’s for lunch but today is a good day so he celebrates with a small act of charity for himself. Charlene at the office suggested they share a meal but he persisted in watching his computer screen until she went away. It is better this way; she is loud and sometimes uncouth in ways that can annoy him, like slopping coffee when putting the pot back on the hotplate  or noting that so-and-so has about gone bald this year or clipping her shoulder painfully as she rushes around a corner. Not that Peter is the most graceful or civilized person. But he tries to be, at least at work, whereas she tends to let things fall where they may, words included, though her work is good. She sits four cubicles away from him, so there is relief in that. But he still sneaks around at times to avoid her; it depends on his mood he’s noticed.

“I’ll have to hogtie you one of these days, then take you out on my own dime to see what else can develop,” Charlene informed him once in the elevator, smiling rather wickedly before flouncing off. He has been afraid she might manage it somehow, and that image is not pleasant but its funny, too. He can’t imagine why she persists when he tends to feel flattened by such boldness.

To be fair, Peter avoids most people, they are all too much in some way. He has one good friend and their camaraderie is based on passion for video games, something they can’t quite abandon despite closer to thirty than they ever imagined. They get together on every other Saturday night to play and compete and share a couple beers and pizza. Peter doesn’t much like pizza but Tim does; they both enjoy the strange trance that playing provokes when adrenaline kicks in. Other than Tim and his sister, Everly, who lives twelve blocks north and occasionally comes by on a Sunday (though they text once or twice a week), his world is solitary. He prefers it that way, overall. He has had more friends but they end up being a distraction from his research on gemstones or forest canopies or alternative fuels–whatever grabs his interest. Gaining knowledge is his main activity after the workday at Drummond Systems. It staves off the bleakness that creeps in like mildew, a little at a time until it cannot be eradicated.

But today he has received clear praise from his manager. It goes a long way in scrubbing the grayness from his cynical being even if it is temporary. To prolong the upwelling of happiness he felt after supervision, he has come to Gideon’s on Rose Terrace Boulevard, so-called because there is an old and neatly terraced rose garden across from the restaurant.  Peter glances at the garden as he pushes the door open; it has a long way to go before pruned bushes grace them all with greenery and showy blossoms. When they erupt into color he will come more often, maybe twice a month until they die down again. A small extravagance he allows each summer.

“Mr. Ellison, welcome back.”

The hostess nods at him and he follows her. He has been coming here off and on for six years yet he still forgets her name, he could be more mindful. When seated he glances at her name tag, Ursula, that’s it alright. He smiles at her and when a new waitress arrives with coppery curls and an overbite he smiles and orders what he often does, a club sandwich on triple toasted sourdough with a premium dill pickle. And then he sighs audibly, glad to be here, and sips ice water.

Matt Carter has been a tough boss to please. In fact, very few do and Peter has not been different in that respect. But he wants to move up, make more money so he can save for a bicycle trip to Holland or France, perhaps both, he works harder and longer hours than most. So the talk today acknowledged this; Mr. Carter knows a loyal and upward bound employee when he sees one, and Peter Ellison is fast becoming most expert in his domain. A bonus is due.

It might actually happen, his trip, maybe a promotion before he knows it. Peter gleefully looks about the open space with its casual but certain loveliness as if to spread his unexpected good cheer. Everyone is, of course, busy with others or on phones or staring out the window. He gazes out at a news stand and the cars inching by, and imagines telling Tim, then wonders if it will matter or if he will be envious since he’s stuck in a low paying, tedious sales job. Everly will shriek and throw her arms about him so he’ll have to pry her off. He might call her at her museum job so she’ll maintain a calmer demeanor. He chuckles. She’s three years older, is kind and protective of him ever since their parents split up when he was sixteen. If he calls them tonight,  Dad and Mom will murmur “Good work, Peter, really, it’s about time”, then swamp him with details of their busy lives until he begs off and hangs up. No, he won’t share it with them. Not yet, he wants it to be his good news, safe and sound.

Looking down at his glass beading up from warmth of his hand, he removes it and studies a ragged cuticle, picks at it until it reddens.

Lunch arrives. Peter reaches for his earphones when someone roars with laughter. He looks  over at the red-faced, bulky man in a charcoal grey suit. He tenses, rumples his napkin. He’s so like his father, boisterous, big, commanding attention of two others at his table. Both Peter’s parents excel in making their presences known. It was a chore for Everly and him to be properly seen so they got by those years like overlapping shadows until they moved to this sprawling city for college and work. Let their parents have their world, they had made their own; sometimes they got together, but not too often.

He plugs in to a playlist of electronic music and takes a big bite. Savors tang and saltiness, crunch and chewiness, feels lucky to have a place like this to enjoy lunch. To feel a little relieved and even good about his success today. Peter half-closes his eyes as he follows along with the music softly soothing his brain, is in a silver roadster and head out on the highway, the top down, the wind gleefully wrecking his hair, and he’s headed to the mountains when there is a fast flick of a sinuous tail, almost a snap at his shoulder. Peter’s eyes widen.

A dingy white and rusty brown cat. Parading along a low room divider as if performing for treats, tail swaying, head high. It then licks a paw a couple seconds. There was never any mascot at Gideon’s, certainly no breathing, licking, scratching cat so what is it doing here, a restaurant at lunchtime? It thrusts its head at Peter, sniffs, whiskers twitching, then pulls back and primly sits right above his table. The cat–a girl, Peter decides–has no intention of leaving him to his sandwich, it smells wonderfully of thick bacon and turkey and ham so he looks nervously about for his waitress who’s at the far end of the room. Waves at her but she moves away. The next table’s occupants don’t notice the cat as they’re intent on coffee and dessert, so Peter shoos the creature away, who simply follows his hand with bobbing head, then eyes the food. He pulls out the ear buds, unnerved. Takes a bite, then another and chews with mouth shut and stares at the cat in defiance of its motives to make ruin of his meal. How irksome and odd to have a cat present. It has to have run in when a door opened wide.

Peter overall feels neutral about animals unless they’re in the wild, then he’s all eyes and ears. They’d had a terrier when growing up but he got hit by a taxi in a rush to get their father to the airport. That was that. Everly asked for a cat once but the answer was a resounding negative; their mother found them fussy and unpredictable. His sister now had no time for pets; Peter had no inclination.

“Go!” Peter commands of the calm statuesque cat.

“Oh dear, where did this one come from? Now aren’t you something, pretty thing?”

Marcy, the name tag announced, is smiling at the cat despite a tremor of alarm in her high voice. She pushes back long wispy bangs. Squints, reaches out with lips pursed as if about to kiss the furry thing but her plan is to grab and hold on despite fear of scratches. The cat leaps down and behind half-wall so she moves slowly around the end, whereupon the cat darts between her legs, under Peter’s table. He can feel its warm body atop his shoe and moves the foot but it moves, too, remains there wedged between the wall and the world, a benign bulk settling in.

“I need to tell the manager,” Marcy says frowning.”A shame, such a pretty feline. Not yours, I assume?”

“No, no, I was enjoying my meal and it appeared as if invited.”

Marcy giggles. “It likes you, apparently.” She looks under the table a moment. “We could offer it some bacon.”

Peter shakes his head emphatically. “Not acceptable to encourage finishing off my meal.”

“Oh, right, sorry, sir, it might just do that.” She leaves in search of the manager.

Peter pushes the cat off his foot with the other foot. It remains close at his ankle, purrs, rubs its head on his pant leg.

“Leaving your fur on me, are you? You need to go.”

It persists with rubbing its head on his pants. Peter  looks under the table again, worries his pressed jeans pants will be hairy with cat fur, shakes his leg. It–she?–stops but stares at him without any concern and rumbles its purr even more.

“I got a bonus today and you had to interrupt my victory meal. Why not bother someone else? I never much cared for cats.”

The next two tables’ occupants have taken notice and watch with either distaste or amusement. He reaches under, tries to snag the cat but it slips around the barrier.  It has begun to feel like a battle being lost so he quickly finishes the sandwich, determined to get back to work late. The cat reappears, disappears, hides under the table. About the time he is ready to get the check, the manager rushes toward him.

A lanky man with a long nose, he looks down through thick black rimmed glasses toward the floor, then at Peter and the others.

“I am so very sorry. This has never happened before. I’ll deal with it, don’t worry.” He studies Peter, his features exuding regret. “It didn’t nab your lunch, sir, did it?”

“No, she must be full of mice as she might have made a pounce for it. May I have the bill, please?”

The manager beckons Marcy, whispers to her, reiterates regrets to him then finds the recalcitrant cat. Swiftly he grabs her by scruff of the neck so four legs stick out straight, then they rush between tables toward the front doors. Out she goes. Peter can just see this from his spot, tossed out just like that. He wonders if the cat’s fate is to scrape by and die on the street.

“No charge, sir, we’re so sorry this happened but hope you’ll return,” Marcy says, blue eyes downcast–but no tip, either.

Peter unfolds himself from his chair, smiles vaguely in her direction. “How generous of you. Crafty cat. No worries, I’ll be back.” He gathers ear buds and phone, gets his wallet out and tucks a tip at plate’s edge as she steps away, lips parting to reveal bright big teeth. He grabs his backpack, eager to leave it all, and exits. Marcy finds him attractive in a disheveled, studious way, hopes next time he remembers her name.

Once outdoors, Peter consults his watch–ten minutes for two blocks–and steps forward, nearly squashing a mass of something. He just catches himself from falling and it yowls–damned cat! She’s been lurking, wishing to hold him up. Now she slinks along the building’s wall and eyes him suspiciously. Maybe she’ll at last go, he’s fed up with shenanigans when he just wants a few more moments to celebrate on the walk back.

She dashes out into the street as a truck lumbers up to the corner so that Peter must run out and hold up his hands to stop honking traffic, then scoops her up, presses her writhing mass to his chest and makes for the corner right by the garden. He plops on a bench, clutching her. She stops wiggling, pokes her nose at his, licks it to his mild dismay. Now he will have to be responsible, how can you not be when you save a life? Isn’t it a spiritual law?

Peter accepts he will now be late. He worries…he knows his boss will not like it–but he will also overlook this slight error of his man of the hour. The cat settles in his lap as he takes out his phone. It rings three, four times and he is about to hang up when it is answered.

“Everly, what are you doing after work? I have news, work-wise and otherwise, can’t say what just now. A surprise, yes. We can order take out, Indian.” He pets the cat firmly. “I have a favor to ask, also, not that big, maybe just advice.” The cat tries to turn a full circle on his now-ruined lap. “Good, see you at seven.”

When Peter enters the office he walks right to Charlene who is startled by his sweaty face. He crooks his finger at her and she gets up, follows him into the empty break room.

“Hold on, now, I just have a chore to ask of you.”

“What’s that?” she asks, curls shimmering at him.

“Where can we keep a cat until I leave?”

“A cat? Here? A real live one?”

“Sshhh!” He lifts his backpack, undoes the flap buckle so two ears and a pointy face pop out.

“Hello, gorgeous! How exciting, Peter, I never imagined you—”

“Pipe down, Charlene, this is serious, I can’t leave work until five but this cat followed me, more or less…so where to keep it? Without being found out and duly dismissed, both of us?”

“Oh, well, there’s the storage room, put it in a box maybe. I do sit right by the door, no one can get in without my knowing. I’ll check on it a couple times. Hopefully it won’t be noisy. I even have leftover ham sandwich, we have milk here, I can feed it if it fusses.” She beams up at Peter. She’s finally gotten into his good graces. Or will soon. “I hope it doesn’t make any messes, though…”

“Perfect, you’re a titan of fine ideas. I really appreciate it. And if you want a cat at the end of the day…”

“No thanks, I have a white poodle puppy to oversee.”

He shrugs, hands off his backpack and she takes over as he lopes back to his cubicle. He turns at his desk and goes back.

“Want to go out sometime, maybe?”

“I passed a test or something?”

She looks undone by his question and it tickles him.

“Maybe.”

“Sure, of course, why not?”

She almost glows some moments, he thinks, like a peachy-orange sunrise moving along the horizon.

Peter returns to work. He has plenty to do and he’s no slacker, that’s for sure. Neither is he a cat person much less a people person. He hypothesizes that life changes at times without his full approval or understanding. But he suddenly feels ready for more happenstance; he’ll figure out the necessary details and make a few accommodations as need be.

 

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