Jack wore a toupee that was obviously a toupee. It perched uneasily on the top of his head, the dark brown sides not quite blending in with the lighter brown of his own hair at the temples. The problem was, Benni noticed this on their first date but said nothing; now it was too late to point out that the hairpiece “wasn’t working” the way Jack or God intended.
They both ordered a scallop, lemon and sun-dried tomato entree, but when the server set the plates of food in front of them, it was obvious the sun-dried tomatoes were absent. There was nothing red or reddish in the dish at all. Jack had the grace to mention this to the waiter with great dexterity.
“Well now, Jason is it? Jason this looks delicious, but it seems to be lacking an ingredient that was delectably described in the menu, which is to say, sun-dried tomatoes.”
Jason sighed, audibly. “We’re out of them in the kitchen. I can take it back, look for something resembling a sun-dried tomato, insist that it is one, and you eat a lie; or you can sit back and enjoy the scallops which are just fine without the sun-dried tomatoes.”
Benni said, “I would like the dish as described, and if that is not available I will have the Steak with Seasonal Mushrooms, medium rare, thank you, Jason.”
A louder sigh than the first one ensued. Jason begrudgingly swept up the two plates and left silently, rolling his eyes.
“What a dickhead,” said Benni. She wore a new dress, black and white, the pattern of which inadvertently made her look like a French maid. Benni noticed this had a slimming effect, but Jack’s first impression was that she was in costume. He said nothing except that she looked very nice, which she really did.
“I’m guessing they are out of Seasonal Mushrooms,” said Jack.
“I trust your intuition. There was a taco truck on the other side of the parking lot…?”
As they crossed the tarmac to Tio’s Tacos’ (sic) Benni was rooting around in her black leather bag for some cash, since Jack confessed that he had none in his wallet, they heard footsteps and shouting from the back entrance to the restaurant.
“Hey you mo-fuckers!” It was the unmistakeable voice of Jason. He was waving a small slip of paper as he made what appeared to be a hostile approach. Jason was not a very tall man, but had the broad shoulders and meaty forearms of someone who worked out regularly. In truth, he had a girlfriend who was an employee at the women’s gym, She-Shape, who let him in during off-hours to use the equipment, providing he wiped it down carefully after use, which he usually did.
“Thank you Jason, for coming to say good-bye, and we do apologize for our abrupt departure, yet we are no longer motivated to eat any of the food you serve.”
“See this?” said Jason, as if he hadn’t heard Jack’s heartfelt apology. “This says, four dollars for one Shirley Temple and five-fifty for one rye and coke, seven dollars for one side salad with apples and nine-ninety-nine for the meatball/quinoa skewer, and fifty-two dollars for two Steaks with Seasonal Mushrooms, medium rare.” He put his nose only inches from Jack’s, and then slipped the receipt between them so Jack could clearly read it if he crossed his eyes.
“What are the Seasonal Mushrooms?” Benni asked.
Jason broke eye contact with Jack and stared at the French maid. “They are seasonal, out of a can, because there aren’t any growing, so they are seasonal canned mushrooms, and they are fine, as they are still mushrooms,” he growled.
“We felt the food and service lacked any justification for giving you money,” said Jack.
“Well that’s just too damn bad,” said Jason. He grabbed Benni’s purse out of her hand, found her wallet, and started pulling five and ten dollar bills from the banknote compartment. Benni simultaneously reached for her wallet and the cash, and a brief struggle ensued.
Jack then kicked Jason directly on the back of both knees, causing him to pitch forward, at which time Jack swiftly pivoted so that he could punch him in the forehead.
Instead of indulging in tacos, Jack and Benni quickly decided to get into Jack’s car and leave the parking lot while Jason was sputtering, spitting, and incapacitated.
Jack’s apartment was more professionally decorated than Benni would have expected or imagined. Muted, neutral tones combined with splashes of blinding colour, like a neon lime cushion on the grey sofa, and an original abstract oil painting in dizzying shades of yellow hung on the wall over the fireplace.
The kitchen had a concrete counter top, which Benni loathed despite best intentions. “I don’t like it, either,” said Jack, as he filled a stainless steel pot with water and set it to boil.
They had spaghetti with sardines and chick peas, which was better than it sounded, and sat out on the small balcony with their dessert Fudgsicles and coffee.
Later, Benni saw an ideal moment to bring up the bad toupee. They were having rather rough first-time sex in Jack’s king size bed, and in a moment of passion, Benni grabbed the hair at the back of Jack’s head and vigorously pulled, while gasping, “Oh Jack, oh Jack.”
Jack shouted in pain, and the hair did not come away. They stopped, and chests heaving, stared at one another. “I’m sorry,” said Benni. Jack’s hair was a mess, a strange blend of colours, and his own.
“You are not the first one to do that,” said Jack.
The server was very pale, with dark hair and the white shirt, black trousers, and full black apron that all the servers at Le Péché wore. He wasn’t our server— ours was a curly haired blonde, but he tapped me on the shoulder as I was raising a fork of duck confit with vanilla foam to my lips.
“Excuse me madam,” he said discreetly, into my ear, so that even my husband, celebrating with me our tenth anniversary with this ridiculously expensive night out, could not hear. It had been a tempestuous ten years, with ups as high as the stars and downs that took us to fiery depths, and everything in between. It was somewhat of a miracle that we were happily marking our tenth year of survival together. “Would it be terribly inconvenient if we moved your table?” the server asked me.
“What?” I said, “Why?”
In the same low tone, the dark server said, “We’ve had a small complaint. One of our guests does not like having you within their line of sight.”
“What?” I said again, certain I’d misheard, and waved off my husband’s enquiring face and stopped him speaking.
“I’m terribly sorry, madam, but they don’t like the way you look,” said the server. “I assure you we will place you where you will be extremely comfortable.” He nodded towards the corner near the shuttered window, where an intimate table for two, surrounded by tall potted plants, apparently awaited us.
My husband Rob followed the server’s hand and eye, and looked at me with an expression of bewilderment.
“I’m too ugly to sit here,” I told him.
“Madam,” the server said with only the slightest hint of distress. “It is only a matter of ensuring all our guests are comfortable and can enjoy the riches of Le Péché.”
“That is absurd,” said Rob, his voice just loud enough to attract the attention of other discreet diners, at their discreet, comfortable, candle-lit tables.
The server looked around nervously. “Please accept a bottle of champagne, as our guests, when we’ve settled you at your new and very comfortable table.”
I stood up. It was impossible to discern who among the “guests” might have lodged a complaint of this nature, as everyone was a dim, shimmering, discreet shadow. I looked for my friend Matt’s bald pate— he might just pull a stunt like this. No subtle lighting reflected off a shiny head.
Rob told the server we would not be paying, and so the manager appeared, and feigned shock at our situation, before accepting our departure as inevitable and inviting us back for a VIP dining experience.
“At that table?” I asked. “The one in the corner where I would face the wall?”
“Madam,” said the manager, bowing formally. “Our VIP service takes place at a specially set table, in the kitchen, where you have VIP access to all that goes on in a fine kitchen of the highest calibre, and where the chef himself serves each and every course!”
We stormed out.
In the car, as we drove to Wendy’s, I stared at myself in the mirror embedded in the visor. A plain woman with pretty eyelashes and nicely formed brows, stared back at me. “What the fuck,” I said to Rob. “Am I ugly?”
“Darling, don’t be silly,” Rob said. “But hey, that VIP table sounds kind of cool. Should we call them back?”
That’s when I realized there was no such thing as a miracle.
Leep blushed so hard that his ears burned. The lights had just been dimmed, and the servers were going around the restaurant lighting table candles. Amanda had disappeared to the Ladies’ Room shortly after they sat down, when the light was brighter. She would return to a romantic, candle-lit environment.
Why had she gone as soon as they sat down? Maybe she called a girlfriend, complaining that she had to spend time with someone like Leep. He wore a clean shirt, white with thin blue stripes, freshly ironed, but his pants were the dark ones, the ones he wore to Ham and Dolly’s wedding, and the night he shot Hootie in the ass. They hadn’t been to the dry cleaners since. Maybe they emitted horrible, bloody vibes, that every one in the room could feel. He blushed some more.
The restaurant was near full, no music or distraction except the mellow, muted buzz of conversation. A server came and stood in front of Leep. “May I bring you and the lady something to drink?” he asked.
“Water,” said Leep, and the server disappeared. Should he have ordered wine? The waiter was probably sneering at him behind his back. He didn’t know anything about wine, or anything about what Amanda liked to drink. Did they have to drink? This was a business meeting after all. But why here, in this place?
“I’ve always wanted to eat here,” said Amanda with a smile, as she sat down and pulled the chair closer. “Really nice, isn’t it?” They both looked around. It was modern, clean, with large shuttered windows and pools of lights in the corners, and sets of three candles on each table.
They both picked up the menu and began reading. Leep blushed at the silence. The food looked strange and expensive. He would stick to what he knew. Salad and a steak, if he could find them.
“Do you have Belgian beer?” he asked when the server came around a second time to enquire about alcohol. Amanda had ordered a glass of Pinot Noir. Leep knew a bit about beer now, and the server, startled, opened the wine list to the back page.
“I believe…” the server said uncertainly.
“Yes, here. I will have the Westmalle.” Leep pointed. He’d never tasted a Belgian Tripel.
“I’m flattered that you want me to be your editor,” Amanda said when the server backed away.
“I can pay you,” Leep said.
“I have an investor,” said Leep. “I can afford to self-publish ‘The Blue Rabbit’. Did you get the manuscript with all the ideas?”
“But you see, I work for Panhandle Press, which does not do self-publishing.”
“I know,” said Leep. “This is separate.”
Leep ordered the house salad even though it had pecans in it, which Leep didn’t like, and which was the cheapest appetizer on the menu, and the Porterhouse steak, which was the most expensive entree on the menu. Amanda ordered eggplant gnocchi and the sea bass special.
“I love the idea of supplying a blue crayon with each book so the children can colour the blue rabbit themselves,” said Amanda.
“You do?” Leep blushed. His skin was tired of blushing, and the dressing on the salad was too sweet.
“Yes, perhaps we can do a board book, so the colour can be wiped off as many times as they want,” said Amanda.
“And the story?”
Leep had to admit the steak was darn good. They were thinking about dessert, or another drink, or coffee, when someone screamed.
It was strange, Leep thought, how something as loud and shocking as a scream yields to a suspended silence, a void, a vacuum that sucks up breath and speech. There the silence hung, for long milliseconds, until the room came alive with movement and talk and shouting.
“Oh my god,” said Amanda.
People seemed to be rushing about, and a wall of staff hid the source of the scream, a table near the window. A few minutes later, an ambulance sounded.
“What happened?” Amanda asked the waiter when he returned to talk about cheesecake. He said someone was ill, nothing to do with the food. “Did you see anything, Leep?”
“No,” said Leep. Then to the server: “Bring the check.”
“Leep, it is my treat,” said Amanda. “You are my client now. It is tax-deductible.”
Through the window they could just see a gurney, plump with a strapped-in body, being loaded into the ambulance. It disappeared with lights flashing but no siren.
Leep had himself an editor, his own editor, who liked his ideas and, for the most part, his book. He tasted a Westmalle Tripel for the first time. Someone got sick or died and upset the universe of the restaurant and distracted attention away from Leep and his failings. His meal was tax-deductible. Amanda didn’t seem to hate him and probably did not complain about him to her girlfriend when she went to the Ladies’ Room.
This was the best date he had ever been on.
Susan Spencer felt like her body, tied up in tight knots, was on fire on the outside and filled with ice on the inside. She sweated and simultaneously had chills, ached so intensely that she actually took pain medication (she avoided all meds, as a personal rule), and the thought of food made her stomach spasm in revulsion.
So when her husband Hugo brought in a doggie bag full of mushroom fettuccine, she gagged audibly and reached for the basin by the side of the bed.
“Not really a good idea, mate,” said Lev, who was visiting Susan, as he nodded at the offending white paper bag.
“Right,” said Hugo, and disappeared from the bedroom.
“So,” said Lev, as Susan wiped her face and hands with a damp cloth, and laid back heavily on the pillows. “How ya feeling?”
Roger “Lev” Levinson was Susan’s partner, both of them with the police force. They’d been a team for almost four years and had pretty much seen the best and worst of one another, so Susan puking into a basin wasn’t exactly a shocker.
“I’m great,” said Susan. “Thanks for coming by, Lev. Fuck off.” The scent of cooked mushrooms dissipated as a ceiling fan rotated slowly overhead, but the room still felt warm and stuffy.
“You interviewed that Leep character, the strange one, the one they call Leep the creep, about the shooting,” said Lev.
“Yeah, he didn’t have much to say, Lev.”
“He is the only eye-witness we have.”
“He just said the guy was big and scary, that’s all,” Susan said. “I don’t even know if I believe him. He seemed to be lying, maybe to get attention. Go talk to him again if you want, you have my blessing.”
“I might,” said Lev. “Anyway how long does the doctor think you can skive off? Gonna squeeze out another few days? A week?”
“At the moment I think I’ll probably be dead by tomorrow,” Susan said. “No kidding, Lev. This fucking sucks.”
“Tell Hugo not to bring shit back from the restaurant.”
“Oh, I will.”
“I thought maybe you might get hungry eventually,” said Hugo, appearing at the bedroom door. “Just trying to help.” He went to the bed and kissed Susan on the forehead. “I’m between lunch and dinner prep. Have to get back in a minute. Do you need anything?”
“Thanks babe, I’m ok. Lev can get me some water. I missed you last night. How did the shift go?”
“Actually,” said Hugo, “someone died, right at the dining table. Everyone was pretty upset.”
“A woman, don’t know much about it yet, I was in the back. The staff got her into the lobby; then the ambulance came.”
“Suspicious?” asked Lev.
“Don’t know, aren’t they all? Never happened in my restaurant before.”
“What’s the name of the restaurant again?” asked Lev.
“‘Liquefy’.” said Hugo. “I inherited the name. The food is not all processed to slime. It’s fine dining, man.”
“Please don’t talk about slime,” said Susan. “Get back to work, both of you. I am tired and miserable and want to curl up and die now.”
“Ok,” said Lev cheerfully. “I’ll just get the water, see you Hugo.”
“Ciao,” said Hugo. “Don’t think about slime or dead bodies in the restaurant, my love. You just concentrate on getting better.”
“I’ll kill you as soon as I’m strong enough,” said Susan.
The restaurant was called Liquefy. Dominic had walked past it a hundred times. It had a sage green stucco exterior and white-painted slatted wood blinds, usually open just enough to see the shadows, animated by the flicker of candles, of the privileged, a group that did not include Dominic.
He had been privileged once, though not through his own ambition or talent. His parents were both established day time soap opera stars, with fan clubs, event appearances, a dash of glamour, and a steady, handsome income. Then came the accident, killing his father and disabling his mother. They received help from Actors’ Guild, but not much and it was down to Dominic to care for his mother, who did not want an institutionalized life, however comfortable. Dominic indulged her, helping her cook her meatballs, her fried eggplant, her fruit layer cakes; doing most of the work, in fact, under her supervision. Her passion now was her kitchen. She occasionally did voice-overs for commercials, but even her voice was losing its velvety power. Dominic would get his mother settled in bed in the evening, then go to his overnight security job, during which he studied in the hopes of finishing his degree in engineering.
He was far too busy for a man his age, who needed and yes, craved adventure and experience. His last girlfriend, he was certain, had left him because of his his inadvertent neglect of her in favour of his mother, his studies, and his job. Fair enough. Maybe now was a bad time for a relationship, though he longed for someone with whom to share his small victories, and to commiserate with him over the hundred tiny failures that made the days long, and the nights even longer.
Dominic paused in front of the restaurant and peered at the menu posted in a mahogany-framed glass case. They still had the eggplant gnocchi appetizer, which his mother would love. They had the sage and parmesan meatballs, the duck breast risotto, the flat iron steak with fire-roasted sweet potatoes (his preference). The prices were posted too. Dominic sighed heavily. His mother’s 60th birthday was in a week. This would be a gift she would never, ever expect, or forget. She didn’t need a scarf, or perfume, or another cookbook. He had to do this, somehow. And he had to figure it out quickly, since he was sure that successful Liquefy reservations were made days in advance.
He remembered as a child, when he and his best friend Denny were desperate for a plate of french fries at the local diner. Desperate. They had no money or prospects. Allowances spent, parents unsympathetic, they spent the entirety of an afternoon plotting income strategies. In the end, they came up with a charity scam, wherein they would tear the labels off of tin cans and go door to door, soliciting money for hungry children in India (which was, according to his parents, who reminded him regularly at dinnertime, a real and current issue).
The plot never gelled, thank goodness, Dominic thought. That would be a horrid addition to his resumé for membership in heaven, which would leave out no job, action, or thought. Dominic believed in heaven. Why not?
Still, the larceny of the plan he and Denny hatched to acquire a plate of french fries crept into his consciousness. He realized he could not risk breaking the law and leaving his mother alone, but he wanted this, his mother’s special birthday dinner, a night of spending and relishing and enjoying life, more than anything he had ever wanted. It was crazy, of course. But he walked past the restaurant every day. It was meant to be. Maybe he could come up with a plan. He would talk to Denny. Denny would understand.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” Jeremy said to the couple in the doorway. He was helping out the new busser, picking up the last of the dessert plates, coffee cups and other table debris from the street-side section. It was after 11, everyone was tired, but the middle-aged couple, both in long, rain-soaked overcoats, did not turn around and leave.
“We are here to see Xavier,” said the woman, whose hair was tied back in a pony tail at the base of her neck. So was the man’s.
Xavier was the new busboy, hired only yesterday. He was 17 or 18, very lean and athletic, with a poor grasp of English and an extremely shy demeanour. His eyes were dark and encircled with dark rings as if he didn’t sleep, which should have been off-putting, but instead made him look more vulnerable, and charming. Jeremy thought so, anyway.
At that moment Xavier himself appeared from behind the bar with two tall, iced glasses of club soda in his hands, and a shy smile on his face that froze when he saw the two people just inside the door to the restaurant.
Xavier approached them, and carefully set the two frosted glasses down on the table nearest Jeremy. “Thanks,” said Jeremy, who was so parched that he picked up a glass and downed all of the water, leaving the ice. When no one spoke, Jeremy, sensing that Xavier was uncomfortable for some reason, turned to the couple and said, “Sorry, but I do need to lock up. Maybe you could meet somewhere else, in a few minutes?”
They ignored him.
“Pray with me,” said the woman to Xavier, taking a step forward. What should have sounded like a benevolent invitation had all the warmth of an open threat. The temperature in the room seemed to drop 10 degrees.
Xavier took a step back. Jeremy wondered if the manager was still at the back of the house, but suspected she wasn’t. He wondered where his cell phone was. Maybe it was on the counter at the bar, near the cash register.
“You made a promise,” said the man. He had an almost comically deep voice, which should have reverberated around the room in a pleasant hum, but instead was sucked into the ground like a deadweight. Neither he nor the woman took their eyes off Xavier.
“Thank you for everything,” Xavier said, with more composure than Jeremy would have expected. “I have job, I am happy. Thank you.”
“We brought you here to do god’s work,” the man said. “There are young people who need you to testify, to witness how god changed your life.”
“We know where you are staying,” the woman said. Jeremy knew that Xavier had a temporary room at the YMCA, while he saved up enough for a downpayment on an apartment.
“We know what you have been doing,” the man continued. “If you have lost your way, Xavier, and want god’s forgiveness, come with us now. Otherwise…”
Xavier stood quietly, his hands at his sides, but from where Jeremy stood he could see Xavier’s left hand was trembling. For a moment, Jeremy didn’t see a tall, fit young man, but a small, weak child, being bullied at school and trying to not to break down, all the fear and pressure migrating to that one hand, which could not contain it.
Jeremy set the glass of ice on the table, and walked over to where Xavier was standing. He stood at Xavier’s side and faced the couple, who were as still as statues.
“Get out,” he said.
“Xavier is in trouble,” the woman said. “We won’t abandon him.”
“If you don’t abandon him right now, I will forcibly remove you, and I warn you that it will be unpleasant, and stain your clothing, and possibly leave permanent scars.”
The woman made one last attempt. “Xavier, they will come and take you away if you–”
“Get out!” Jeremy screamed, and lurched forward. He took the man’s arm and pushed him towards the exit, but the man pulled away and swung at Jeremy with a fist as big as a bowling ball.
Jeremy blocked the punch, struck the man in the throat with the side of his hand and kneed him in the groin, in one smooth gesture. He shoved the man out the door, where he crumpled to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been severed.
The woman screamed and followed him out, much to Jeremy’s relief, and he closed the door quickly and drew the bolts. He would key lock it and set the alarms later.
“Whoa,” said Xavier.
“I had to learn to protect myself,” Jeremy said. “What the fuck just happened?”
Xavier told him, in between gulps of water, and Jeremy said, “Well you can’t go back to your room at the ‘Y’. They know where you are and will have the authorities there by tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry,” Xavier said. “I had to, I mean I didn’t know–”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jeremy said with a sigh. “You can come sleep on my couch for tonight. I warn you, my dad is an old bigot, but you’ll be safe there.”
And that’s how Xavier met the old bigot, and one of the most unusual friendships in all the world began.