The Special

Photo  by Igor Moukhin
Photo by Igor Moukhin

They live a block apart, just down the street from the other but they hadn’t spoken to each other in years. For four decades, to be exact. It wasn’t something terrible, planned out like a vendetta. They didn’t acknowledge one another face-to-face after that summer, that’s all. I thought it was strange, but lots of things people do are unexpected. Since I knew them both, I was in a hard spot at first. They didn’t include me in it and it was better that way. After the first couple of years I got the point and stayed friends with them both.

But seeing them in the same places and not even looking at each other, not directly at least–that still throws me off. They telegraph a quick vibe that’s not so comfortable, step back and maybe nod at whoever else is nearby. Not too long ago Terry was behind Vincent in the drugstore before he realized it. I was with Vincent and turned to grab a couple of peppermint patties.

“Hey, Terry, how’s it goin’?”

“Marty, going great, you and the food business good as usual?” Then he looked a moment at Vincent’s profile and then away.

“Thriving. Come in and I’ll treat you to a steak. Even give you a doggy bag of scraps for your mutt.”

“Our handsome Rusty? He’ll love you for that. I’ll have to get out my good pants and shine my shoes, your place is jumping these days. I’ll stop by sometime with Janell.”

We moved on and when I turned to see if Terry was looking back at us as we exited, he wasn’t.

“Come on, slacker,” Vincent said, four paces ahead of me.

I kept a snapshot of our teen days stuck in a dusty album. I used to study it, thought I could figure us all out. Vincent is the one scowling, which he can still fall into off and on. Terry is the guy happy to have a girl in his arms. I think he’s looking at her friend but I’m not clear on it. I’m the one you don’t see, taking the picture with my Kodak, wishing the girl in front of me would turn around and see me. She was too swept up in conversation with the girl wedged between Terry and her so never did show me any favor. That picture is a tiny clue to a puzzle I have so far failed to solve.

It was the summer before high school and we were hanging out at one of our spontaneous street gatherings. Music was blaring from a portable radio. Fifteen or twenty kids usually showed up via word of mouth; there were blocks jam-packed with families. Everybody had the bead on everybody else, or thought they did. But nobody knows for sure what happened between Vincent and Terry, or if it was just one of those things. They had been buddies since kindergarten or before, same as me. By the time we started tenth grade, they had gone their separate ways and had nothing to say about it. Vincent shrugged and said, “Man, it’s nothin’ to freak out about, forget it, you and I–we’re good.” Terry told me, “It was a weird thing last summer. We had our own viewpoints, that’s all. Don’t worry about it, I’m cool.” So that was that.

Now we live in the same general neighborhood, better than our old district. Comfortable, a big step up. But it’s taken awhile. Vincent lives four blocks from me but close to Terry. A park divides their houses, though, and when you walk through it, you come out to a “little less” or a “more” environment. Vincent was the “less” but he did well, too. Terry didn’t have children so they never had to worry about their kids becoming bosom buddies.

I left in the seventies, hitchhiked out to California for a year. I got high too much, worked odd jobs, ate too little. It was an experience but I came back to my parents’ restaurant. Now it’s mine. Vincent couldn’t wait to work at the Ford factory, said he made great money and benefits and was proud to help build a fine product, then became a manager. He liked to play ball on week-ends, likes to attend games now and toss a ball with neighbor kids. He has a good family that is tight. Terry was a good student and liked school so he went to college, fell for the charms of Janell, a mixed race gal, got married, went on to become a veterinarian, as did she. He takes on quite a few indigent pet owners, which I’m all for. He can afford it.

This weekend when I’m trying out a new chicken dish, a special, Vincent comes in with Haley and their son, Jay. He’s all excited to see me, wants to tell me something, but I’m rushing around staying on top of things, greeting new patrons, hoping the dish will be as perfect as it was during trial runs. Otherwise, my new chef is gone and I’m going to send out an S.O.S. for help.

Friends always think you can do them a favor, make their visit extra special, more meaningful somehow. Not necessarily going to happen but I try. I seat his family by a large window that looks out over a creek.

“Got good news to tell you,” Haley beams at me after a quick hug.

“Can’t wait to hear it, but later, sorry. Try the new Chicken Roulade. A winner.”

Vincent settles back, keeps his news on hold while Haley sulks the barest amount as she scans a menu. Jay looks a little sweaty even though his polo is clean, so likely was dragged in from skateboarding. He’s already decided on T-bone, he always does.

“Glad you all came in, guys. I’ll check back when I get a chance to chat.”

“Sure, no worries.” Vincent waves me off as I head to the kitchen, on the way instructing a waitress to tend to them sooner rather than later.

A half hour later the place is crowded with people lined up at the door. I’m counting my lucky stars again. The Range and Sea has been updated and revitalized; it has paid off fast. I’m standing in the back, chatting with staff, watching folks come and go. The special was perfect as it could be, excellent wine is flowing, everyone is relieved it’s Friday and glad to be at my place. A swell of contentment fills me up and there’s a moment when everything that matters is clear to me, and I’m floating above the din and seeing how it all fits together. Except for Sara, my wife, soon to be ex-wife if she insists on having her way. The effervescence of happiness starts to go flat as I bring my mind back to the person who is asking me something.

Then I spot Terry’s head bobbing along as he jockeys for a spot to wait with Janell. Her dark, curly head leans against his shoulder. They’re a striking pair, he pale and angular, she caramel-hued, tall like him and vibrant in the sea of mostly white faces. She specializes in more unusual creatures, charges far more to examine paws and feathers, I’m sure.

I re-engage with the waiter in front of me despite wanting to welcome them.

“We’re running out of room, that line keeps lengthening,” he says, face ruddy, tinged with perspiration. He dabs his upper lip with a tissue.

“Good problem to have. Set up three more round tables on the side terrace if you can make the space without bothering diners.”

I glance back at Terry and Janell. They’re heading to a table as I go to my office to answer a phone call. I could hide out but prefer being on the floor of my establishment, absorbing the heady buzz of conversations while tantalizing fragrances emanate throughout the rooms.

It’s my wife on the other end. I close the door.

“Listen, I have thought some more and I think we should get counseling.”

I can hear her breathing and I know she is nervous. It throws me off.

“What?” I can’t believe she is calling me at rush hour.

“I mean, we might still try to make it work. Maybe I need to make some changes, too. I just don’t know what or how yet. I think we need someone one to help guide us…”

Her voice is thickened by threatening tears. I wonder what brought this on. But I’m not about to start questioning things. I have been hopeful and deflated before. Despite my passion for work, I so need and love her, too. “Okay.”

“Okay? Just like that?” She whistles, which sounds funny making its way between teariness and the serious tone. But that’s Sara for you. “Then will you come home earlier tonight? Please?”

I consider the restaurant, how much there is to do yet before I oversee closing up around midnight. But, yes, I could leave early.

“Is this for real? Don’t answer. I’ll do my best. Yes, I’ll come home earlier.”

When I open the door, I feel lighter even as my stomach quivers. I suck it in and head into the softly lit, navy blue and dove grey decorated rooms. I search for Terry and Janell, and remind myself I need to stop by Vincent’s table, too. I can see Terry’s balding head above others and make a beeline.

And slow down as I approach.

Terry is seated by the window, next to Vincent’s table. In fact, they are facing each other across a small space separating them. The women are looking from husband to husband, then back to each other. I approach with cautious friendliness.

“I see you’re all taken care of? Got your food already, Vincent, Haley. I hope it’s to your liking tonight. Glad you all came!”

“Maybe we could be seated elsewhere, Marty,” Janell suggests in an calm voice. “Not sure this was the best idea.”

“Well, why not?” Haley pipes up.”You and I are friendly enough. Let the men do as they do. The food is tasty, the creek view is lovely.”

Jay shakes his head, takes another bite of rare steak coupled with a roasted garlic potato.

Vincent is gesturing wait staff for more wine and not meeting my eyes. Terry is looking at his watch, as if to gauge whether or not they can get in elsewhere for dinner before fainting from hunger. They love to eat out every week-end. I want them to stay, and come again soon.

“I think we’ll manage. We’re about to order,” he says to Janell, then smiles widely at me–but his eyes are half-closed as if shielding what he really feels, a quirk he’s always had.

I step aside while my staff attend to both tables. I am wondering what the news is from Vincent’s camp but think better of that. “How about the Chicken Roulade?”

“Mine was very good. We’ll finish up in a few, yes, Haley? After another glass or two of wine. We’re celebrating, after all.”

Vincent is getting loose, just enough that we notice. He’s not a big drinker like his dad was, but it occurs to me he’s trying to deal with being so near Terry. How do you leave when it’s obvious? When you aren’t acknowledging someone in the first place?

Terry pulls his sleeve over the watch, puts his hand on Janell’s. They taste their wine as if discovering its virtues for the first time.

“So, business is fantastic. We haven’t stopped by for a couple months. I’m impressed. You’ve done a fine job at refurbishing things, and I bet you’re giving really good competition to the rest.”

Janelle smooths her hair back from her face and the movement is a tell, showing her attempt to keep things neatly under wraps.

Terry taps my shoulder as I lean in. “We need to have a barbecue this summer, invite the neighborhood, make it a big affair, even a pool party, what do you think?”

“I agree, we could use more fun. We all work way too hard. Maybe in  July? If we can just get everyone to agree on a date and time that suits all.” That would be interesting, everyone together, even Vincent?

“That’s the truth, we do work too hard for our fifties,” Vincent says from the half-slouch he’s affecting. “Anything else we need to state or overstate?” He sits taller. “In fact, anything we need to say that hasn’t been said before?”

“Dad, come on.” Jay pauses, fork in mid-air, puts it down. “Mom?”

His mother makes a little moue with her mouth, lifts her goblet, sets it down. She is done with her Cobb salad, waits to see what happens. She trades a look with Janell but it’s unreadable.

“Hey, I need to run, but I’m always gratified when my friends come by,” I say, anxious for this to blow over, wanting to keep the mood lighter, hoping to be home earlier than usual to see what else Sara has up her sleeve.

“Well,” Terry starts, his voice quietly commanding our attention, “let’s get it done. Tell me: why did your father say that to my mother that summer night we were barbecuing in our yard? In that way? With that look? Aye, Vincent?”

Vincent sits up straight, barrel chest out. “Of course. I supposed that was still it. That all this time you’ve labored over it, tried to make sense of something that had nothing to do with us. That was about stupid issues we didn’t understand. I didn’t, anyway.”

“‘Stupid issues’?” Spittle with bits of chicken falls from Terry’s lips and he wipes it away, then inflates with a steadying breath. “My dad was thinking of leaving her, you knew that. Not everyone did, but your family did. But they were still together, and I was praying all summer they would stay that way. The cook-out was going well, everyone was good, Dad was even being attentive to my mom. Then when Dad went inside your dad sidled up–”

“‘Sidled up’? Like it was something dangerous? I was there, too. He was just making conversation, they were all good friends!”

Janell puts her arm around the back of Terry’s chair as he continues.

“–sidled up to her and says, ‘If I were your husband, I’d be more careful. You have beautiful eyes of an angel.’ And he leaned down and whispered something in her ear, put his hand on her back for a split second. ‘Right?’ he said and laughed. I saw your mother flinch, saw my mom smile an embarrassed smile. And there was Dad, at a standstill with a platter of hamburgers as he watched your dad slink away, my mom stand alone with her arms wrapped around her. I’ll never forget her face, confused, anxious.”

I almost want to bolt. This is none of my business. I have other things to do, important things. But I can’t move.

“I told you what was what then,” Vincent says as he starts to stand, then is tapped on the arm by his wife. He sits. “My dad could talk too much, said things he should have kept to himself. But he wasn’t the sort of man you accused him of being, and he didn’t do anything bad then!”

“Like hell.” Terry seethes but with quietness, ever mindful of his surroundings. “You weren’t there later that night. You didn’t have to hear Dad and Mom arguing and watch my dad pack up a suitcase and leave the house. You weren’t me in my dark little room, watching out the window as he pulled out the driveway like a madman and then disappeared for the whole week-end. Your dad instigated all that.”

The waiter brings the orders to Terry’s table, speaks to me of a kitchen issue, then leaves. All is silent. I try to think of a way to call it a night on this topic. My wonderful special steams on the white and silver-trimmed plates. And isn’t touched.

“Wait a minute. Your dad actually left over that?”

Terry smooths the napkin on his lap. He picks up his fork and stares at it a long moment as if deciding if it is meant to do something else. “Yes.” He takes the knife and cuts a piece of chicken and eats, then cuts another. Janelle follows suit. Terry’s face reddens with each bite and he stops. “Yes, he left us, and that week-end felt like an eternity. All because your father made it look like my mother and he were in on something. It took a long while for our lives to re-settle when he got back Monday night. Too long. Alot was never the same for me.” He sets his fork tines atop the enticing food on its pretty plate.

Jay coughs, takes a long swig of ice water.

Haley sits up straight. “And neither was the friendship between you boys, once two of the best friends. How can that be?”

“He never took back the curse he threw at me, at my own father, Haley. I almost beat him up, it was so wrong. I couldn’t keep my dad in check, anyway. It was all a mess so we just never talked again.”

I sit down between the two tables. “I’m sorry about that, guys, but…Really, that was decades ago. Who doesn’t have parents who were foolish in some way? Ours were good to us, tried to do the right thing most of the time. They all stayed together, right? And we’re still here and have a lot of blessings to be thankful about.”

I think about Sara, how we need to talk better, argue less. That I can’t wait to see her this time. How we can lose someone over what is not said or finally said wrong.

Jay has finished eating, sits with elbows propped on the white tablecloth, chin in hands. “You know something, damn it? You two are acting kind of like teen-agers, like you got stuck there. Sorry it was rough on you both, really. But can’t we just call it good now, make up and so on? Can’t we just talk about the prize we won?”

I don’t mean to laugh but it explodes from me and in a few seconds the spell seems nearly broken as Vincent and Terry shift, relax. I stand up, roll my shoulders free of tension. “Just tell us the surprise.”

Vincent gets up and raises his wine glass to both tables, which might be a result of being tipsy but he seems relieved and excited. “We won an all-expense paid trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands for ten days!”

“My gosh, Haley, are you still entering all those contests? And it finally paid off!”

Terry and Janell almost look glad for them. I try to envision them all going on vacation together but quickly let that go.

As I leave them, the women start carrying on about what resort wear actually is and fancy drink names they’d devise. Jay is enthusing about surfboarding and the girls he’ll meet. The two men, my old buddies, aren’t quite talking yet when I turn to look back but they aren’t in a big hurry to leave, either. They’re listening and settling. I figure it’s a start. At least I didn’t have to break up a fight. Terry and Vincent are far better than that, they just haven’t entirely finished up their old business. It can happen. I tend toward optimism; it’ll happen sometime soon.

But it wasn’t miraculous that they came to the Range and Sea tonight, were even seated next to one another. I put things in place. They won’t learn that piece. Vincent and Terry still mean that much to me.

 

Remarkable Matters

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The place was overtaken by ceramic Siamese cats. They showed off their glossy pale coats, peered into the room with icy eyes, and lorded their eminence over anyone who set foot in the room. Everywhere Clementine looked, they seemed accusatory, as if they knew her reasons for climbing the stairs with leaden feet. She’d had to ring an outside buzzer to get in the building, like it was a secret society up there. What did you call a fortune teller’s work? A consulting business? A fool’s paradise? 

It was attractive once she let herself in. Elegant, in fact, which was surprising considering the neighborhood, fraught with wandering souls and greasy eateries.  She ignored the cats and focused on a wall of pink, blue and gold floral wallpaper, two large mirrors that caused wintry light to gather and flash across the floor and her lap. Everything was prettified and hearkened from early or mid-twentieth century. Even the phone was rotary, made for someone who wore high-heeled satin slippers upon awakening. Clementine was drawn to a dish holding heart-shaped cookies. Were they supposed to encourage a placid, appreciative expectancy in customers?

Her eyes lingered on things despite her intention, which was to await her appointment patiently, to breathe slowly. Keep her mission in the fore of her mind. How could she prepare and present her thoughts intelligently when everything gleamed and bloomed without mercy?

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When the private door swung open, she would enter the office (or would it be a room shrouded in voluminous drapes and darkness?) and take a seat confidently. Say she’d been passing by, saw the little, calligraphic sign by the door and determined to call Madame Valencia on a lark.  And she would be frank, tell her that she didn’t believe in this sort of thing, but for twenty-five dollars maybe she could tell her something good. Something so visionary that she would leave with a renewed sense of purpose. An epiphany, against the odds. She snickered softly. Wouldn’t that cost more?

Maybe that would be too much to say, on second thought.

Clem studied the perfect arrangement of heart-shaped cookies. She picked up a red one and cradled it in her palm. Her fingers trembled. The oxygen felt as though it had leaked out of the room; the warmth was oppressive. There stood eternally blooming flowers, Siamese cats like sentries. If they were real they likely would size her up as an impostor but it should have been their mistress they inventoried. Or maybe they would be trained to think of Madame as “Highness.” If they could only purr, they might leap upon the rung and twitch their tails against her ankles, make an effort to be more welcoming. Ease the mean ache burrowing between her ribs, the reason she was here. Really, she should just leave this silly place.

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Clem covered her eyes but that did nothing to stop the years from rewinding: she is again at the art museum, waiting two hours for him, studying Monet and then Gauguin. After an hour moving on to the fifteenth century tapestries that she admires most of all. He knows where to look. Though he would like contemporary exhibits, he accommodates her tastes. But this time he is too late, and Clementine has gone to the mezzanine that overlooks the first floor. Scanning the sparse crowd, she thinks she recognizes his olive trench coat, his sandy hair, but it can’t be. This man is leaning toward a woman in a navy blue cape and high heeled boots as though imparting important information. His hand is on her shoulder. Clementine is about to call out and wave when the woman looks up anxiously. The woman freezes, then steps back and brushes by him and out the glass doors. He lifts his eyes to the mezzanine and sees her, is alarmed. He punches the elevator button three times. By the time he gets to Monet, Clementine has slipped way, taken the side stairs and gone home. For the person he was stood close to is Anne. Clementine’s sister.

Though he called repeatedly, she never answered. When her sister arrived at odd hours and rang the bell twenty times, Clementine was driven out the back door by rage. Then finally moved far way. She knew he and Anne had to have something important, deep; they never would taken the risk and come to the museum together. Maybe they had been been planning on telling her. And it was just like her sister, taking what she believed was meant for her. And just like Clementine to let her have it.

But that was then. Clementine wiped any clinging crumbs from her lips and put the tissue in her purse.  The sculpted marble clock on the mantel indicated she had two more minutes but the private door opened. Madame Valencia wafted into the room, extended her hand, then followed her client into the office. Clementine took in the brocade love seat, the table with its flowered phone, the appointment book beside the kitschy figurine of a bride and groom, perhaps hers or her mother’s long ago. Madame Valencia settled across from her, long legs crossed at narrow ankles. She looked more like a fifties model than a so-called psychic, with grey pencil skirt and ruffled lavender cashmere sweater. Her blond waves were immovable.

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“How can I be of use today?” Madame asked, voice smooth as  caramel.

“I have my doubts, really….but I know you specialize in doing readings for clients with relationship issues, right? How about past relationships?”

“Everyone has matters of the heart in mind. How long ago? Here, yes?” Madame Valencia’s eyes smiled though her mauve lips moved little.

Clementine wondered why the woman didn’t know. Wasn’t this her job or did she need clues? Maybe Madame wasn’t the real thing. Her neck tingled.

“Fifteen years, here, yes. But recently there was a divorce. Not mine. My sister’s. But I knew him first. Was with him first.”

Madam Valencia nodded.”And you would like to know if he thinks of you? Cares. Wants to find you, perhaps, to begin anew.”

“Something like that. I never married…I might still love him, but I might hate him, too. I’ve been away a long time; I had to make a whole new life.”

“Have you?”

Clementine shrugged. “Enough that I’m sought after as an art dealer. That I’m able to do as I please.”

“And are you really doing as you please? So why Jon?”

The sound of his name, not mentioned to Madame, jarred her.”Look, he took my sister–vice versa likely. They married. I haven’t talked to her since I knew they were….since they were seen somewhere they shouldn’t have been. My mother told me they divorced last year. Now mother is ill and I’m visiting awhile. I don’t know what I want to do about Jon, if anything. Can you tell me something, if I should reach out to him?”

Madame Valencia had lowered her eyelids as though meditating. She squeezed them shut and her jaw tightened as though wincing from a sudden pain. Clementine clasped her hands together and worried the fortune teller would start spewing strange things. It suddenly felt worse than absurd to be talking to a stranger, captive in a room awash with romanticism. And there was yet another cat in the window, mocking her. Too much.

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Madame opened her eyes again; they were clear blue, calm.

“Your sister, Anne, is waiting for you to call her. This has been a terrible thing for her. You can find your answers with her. But Jon is long gone.”

“Anne? I don’t care what Anne is undergoing. She stole Jon, she made the marriage whatever it was and now she is done with him. This is not of any interest to me. Anne can take care of her own business.”

“Ah, but these past years have been a chore for you, yes? They have been spare… emotionally… bereft of close friends, soured by loss of trust. You have whipped about in your private life like a kite without a direction, tethered to pain. You keep close all you lost, feed your resentment until it’s become bitter sustenance you cannot live without. You will disappear into a well of regrets if you cannot let go. And love your sister as you loved her once. With deep affection. Acceptance.”

Clementine fell back. “I paid you money and this is what I get? Jon is who I’ve needed all these years…”

“It may be Jon you both once wanted. But your sister is the one who will always be here, as you could be for her. Don’t abandon yourself over a man who came and went. Free your heart. Give it first and last to your family. It is you who has truly left. Not Anne. She waits.”

Clementine felt something rumble and turn inside. She felt the river of her life as it moved from past to present and toward the future. Had Jon divided them? And did she leave behind her sister even though she was the one who felt disposed of? What was the nature of betrayal? She was suddenly made fragile, near tears.

“Perhaps,” she whispered, “this is true. It’s time to find out.”

Madame’s eyes warmed with compassion. “Not all, but much love is renewable. Tend to it.”

On the way out Clementine picked up an ornate old mirror on a table by the restroom. She looked more weary than she’d expected. A breathing, running Siamese cat slipped behind her, tail tickling her ankle. What a remarkable and strange place. She’d keep her mad impulse a secret. Now she was going to get coffee, think it all over. Or maybe it was time to call her sister. Compare life notes. Even learn to laugh about the messes they’d made. Arm themselves with real love for whatever lay ahead.

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