Stories 3 Fall 2013

 

 

 

 Selfish Zones

    by Kenneth Schalhoub

 

“Some people do like you,” Ellen told him every time he asked. But then maybe she had to since it was her job to tell people what they wanted to hear. She was a bartender. “You’re a very affable person when you choose to be.” He was proud of his conversational skills and he knew they were better than most when he chose to use them as Ellen reminded him repeatedly. He could be funny, educational, and genuinely just plain decent when he was in the mood. (He was working on being more empathetic—another suggestion from Ellen.) Matt was, though, a person who always seemed to be on the outside; someone who a person might talk to but also might not. There was a conflict between his body language and his conversation, a conflict that he was aware of; thought about; did not completely understand, and did not want to understand. He was particular about his personal associations. He chose his conversations with care. His reasons were not based in snobbery but rather a way for him to control his environment. There had been a young woman some years ago whom he had almost dated. “You’re a picky person, too picky for me,” she had said.

He spent one or two nights a week at his favorite bar, a place that in truth was not a bar, but a restaurant that had a bar the owners used as a holding pen for diners who were waiting for tables. There were only fourteen seats available and on weekend nights they were at a premium. On Fridays Matt arrived early to ensure he secured a stool. The odd times when he decided to get a drink on a weeknight, seats were usually available. He stuck to his pattern and maintained his privacy zone when he drank his Gibsons. “In a small bar like this,” he explained to his few acquaintances, “you cannot eavesdrop. You have to respect everyone’s zones.” It was the courteous thing to do.

“Gibson?” Ellen asked.

“You read my mind.”

“Eating tonight?”

It was a Friday night after a long week at work. He hadn’t changed his clothes. His five o’clock shadow looked more like seven 0’clock needing a shave.

“You look bored,” Ellen said.

He looked at her and said nothing. His sagging eyes were all she needed to see.

“I know you and you look bored. Are you going to show that posture tonight? Because if you do, you’ll only reinforce what some people already think.”

Matt had recently lost a relationship. This establishment, this refuge had become his way to forget—but he couldn’t. Forgetting is a myth. Moving on is a myth. He liked the fact that someone, Ellen, paid some attention. He was able to connect with her.

“That I’m a snob, right? That I’m unapproachable…”

“You said it, not me. I’m only doing my job,” Ellen said.

“And you do it very well.”

Ellen smiled, winked, and attended to her duties.

At the far corner of the bar was a couple and one college kid glued to his smartphone. Matt looked in every direction except anywhere near the other patrons. Have to respect the ‘zone.’ In a small bar, a person could look away, but could not block sound; could not completely tune out the ambient conversations. Some people mistook his respect for their zones as snobbery. He had tried to explain it to Ellen, but she waved it off as stupid. “Where’d you get that idea?” she had asked. He has since given up; she just was not wired to understand, she was a true social creature and that was why she excelled at her profession.

On this particular Friday a couple was talking with Ellen about the Halloween party they were planning to attend. “We’re dressing up like human martinis,” the woman said as Ellen mixed the next faux martinis they ordered. It was a laugh. In the age of chemistry in the fifties and sixties, a martini was a gin drink in a four ounce inverted cone glass. He knew this because his mother drank them and introduced him to the Gibson which was a martini with a pearl onion instead of an olive. The new age martinis were fourteen ounces of pure alcohol with the disguise of sweetness. And inverted cone was still the container of choice, but just as food had been supersized, martinis had followed suit. The couple was lamenting about how another restaurant in town was closing. Matt didn’t need to know who they were, but he was interested in the restaurant closing. He glanced over to them and snagged the woman’s eyes then quickly looked away.

“So what do you think?”

Matt turned back toward them. “Excuse me?”

“Sandy’s. What do you think about it closing?”

“Never ate there.”

“Well you don’t know what you’ve missed. It was a great place, wasn’t it Billy?”

Her companion looked indifferent. “Yeah, it was O.K., but I like this place better.”

Matt watched as they exchanged looks. “This place” was actually called The Place, and it was still open and Sandy’s was not. He looked away sipping his drink focusing on the pearl onion positioned exactly in the center bottom of the cone.

“What do you do?” she asked. Her friend (maybe boyfriend) was still not paying attention.

“I work for the city,” Matt said.

“Doing what?”

“I survey. What about you?”

Matt’s question was based not on whether he cared about her job, but to test the openness of the exchange. People had jobs. He had his and he enjoyed sharing work stories as a conversational mechanism. There were times when he talked with people who had jobs that barely paid the rent. They talked and then escaped outside to smoke cigarettes.

The boyfriend’s head perked up. “Hey, I’m an unemployed surveyor. Been looking for work for six months. Does the city have anything?”

The city didn’t usually hire in the fall due year end budget cuts, but the conversation was O.K. and Matt decided to string things along. It was better than staring at the bottles sitting on the shelves waiting to be used for the next martini. But a part of him also wanted to see who this guy was. Maybe he could help him out‑be a hero of sorts.

“Here’s my card. Give me a call in a few weeks and I’ll see what I can do,” he said. He felt good giving the guy a bit of hope and who knew? Maybe something would open up. If not, at least Ellen couldn’t accuse him of not wanting to connect with people.

“Thanks…I don’t even know your name,” the guy said.

“I’m Matt.”

“I’m Billy and this is Chrissie,” he said pointing at his girlfriend forgetting she had already called him by name.

“Nice to meet you,” Matt said.

The conversation ended and they turned to each other blocking out the bar environment. Matt respected their combined zones.

“One more, Matt?” Ellen asked.

“Sure, and order me the calamari please.”

“You got it.”

When Matt looked back, the conversation couple continued talking to each other and the smartphone kid was still on his own. One more Gibson would do it as he waited for his squid. Ellen brought the plate full of rings and tentacles and he crunched on the deep fried meal wondering if he would ever see Billy or Chrissie again.

 

The following Friday the bar hopped with more energy than the week prior. Halloween was tomorrow and half the bar buzzed with couples in costumes. The feeling of an approaching holiday filled the restaurant even though Matt shook his head at the idea that Halloween had now been labelled a holiday. A group of women (not in costume) pushed through the door and approached the bar. They usually came for dinner but if their table was not ready, they would spend some time at the bar. They were a curious amalgam of independent and (it seemed to Matt) lost female souls. Two were widows, one was a divorcee, and the fourth was an eternally unattached woman. He had met them a year ago and although the initial conversations were cordial and almost inviting, subsequent encounters had degenerated into waves, nods, smiles, and careful avoidance—on their parts—not on his. He respected their distance but wished he didn’t have to. He had recounted their behavior to a female work friend a while ago. “I can’t understand why they don’t want to engage in conversation—maybe invite me to their table. I’m an interesting guy.” She had to explain to him what he came to realize most men did not understand. “It doesn’t matter how interesting you are. They just want a night to themselves without having to deal with groping men.” Matt thought that was harsh. The entire explanation saddened him—hurt his guy-pride.

This Friday Matt had already polished off two drinks and felt bold. He left his barstool and drifted toward Allison, the one who was usually the most approachable.

“Hey Allison, happy Friday.”

“Hello Matt. Any plans for trick- or-treat day?”

“Not really. Maybe I’ll watch an old Frankenstein movie.”

The others gave quick sideways glances in his direction without offering a greeting of their own. And then, finally, Betty, the other somewhat approachable member of the social guild looked toward him.

“Hi Matt. Nice to see you.”

Matt had learned years ago that “Nice to see you” didn’t necessarily mean that the person was happy to see you. It could also mean: “There, I’ve acknowledged your presence, now get lost.” By the look on her face he was convinced she meant the latter.

“It’s nice to see you all out tonight. Enjoy your dinners. And enjoy tomorrow’s Halloween festivities.” Matt said and drifted back to his barstool. Allison smiled and returned to her group’s closed conversation.

Matt didn’t eavesdrop on their conversation, but did keep one eye on their motions until they were called for their table. He watched as they left the bar and he continued watching as they took their respective seats at the table. He thought about how he would have entertained them if he had been invited. Ellen brought his next Gibson and a menu.

 

The following week had been an excruciating exercise in work boredom. Standing in the gray daylight of New Hampshire next to a theodolite on a tripod and GPS in hand, time seemed to run at half-speed. Truth was that Matt lived his life during the week waiting for Friday. But this week beckoned him to visit his refuge before Friday and his willpower faltered. He wanted alcohol and some easy conversation with Ellen.

“Out on a Wednesday?” Ellen asked.

“Needed to talk to someone and you came to mind.”

She smiled and winked. “Usual?”

He nodded.

As Ellen poured his drink the door opened and someone Matt had never seen entered his world. Other than him, only a couple reading menus sat at the other end. He was in a vulnerable conversational position. The newcomer picked a stool at the nighty degree end of the bar where he was able to look directly at Matt. When Ellen brought his drink he thanked her and picked up his smartphone pretending to look engaged.

“Nice phone.”

The voice had a midrange that balanced on that fulcrum between a deep female voice and a high male voice. Matt glanced at the couple and instantly knew the new guy wasn’t talking to them. He was trapped into making some level of basic conversation.

“Thanks, but how can you tell? The phone’s in my hand.”

“Any smartphone is a nice phone. I can’t afford one.”

Matt didn’t know what to make of the exchange and looked back at the mini-screen hoping that would be the end of the conversation.

“Who’s your provider?”

Matt deliberately took longer than was polite to answer, but knew at some point he had to say something. And then Ellen came to a kind of rescue.

“Matt, this is Dennis—Dennis, this is Matt.”

“Great to meet you, Matt.”

“Yeah, you too.”

Matt returned to his screen.

“Anything looking good on the menu?” Dennis asked. He directed his attention to the couple.

Matt glanced at the couple as they looked up. They seemed a bit put-off by the looks on their faces, but obliged the request.

“Yeah, lots,” the woman said.

“Y’know I eat here a lot and I always get the steak tips.”

Matt watched as the woman half-nodded returning her eyes to the menu. Her partner did not acknowledge the exchange.

“They are great,” Dennis said to the couple not respecting their zone.

“We don’t eat beef,” the woman said.

“Then try the tortellini with chicken,” Dennis said.

The guy finally looked up from his menu. “Thanks buddy, we’ll check it out. Would you mind if we read the rest of the menu?”

“Oh sure, let me know what you think.”

Dennis turned his attention back to Matt.

“I come here because my daughter has a Bible class at the church next door, usually on Wednesdays. They did a wonderful cupcake party for Halloween last week.”

“That so…” Matt said with only one eye glancing toward him.

Matt positioned his gaze straight ahead hoping this Dennis guy would take the hint that on this night he was not interested in talking to a stranger about nothing. And then the door opened and let in two guys who frequented the bar. They were lost middle-aged men. Matt liked them and waved them over to the seats next to him on the other side from Dennis. Matt could now focus his attention on them and Ellen. As they were dragging their stools to seating positions, Dennis focused back on the couple.

“Did you decide?”

“What?” the guy looked up and said in a way that really said: “What the fuck?”

“Your food. What’re you getting?”

“I’m not sure—”

“We’re going for the eggplant parmesan and the tortellini without chicken,” the woman said diffusing the exchange.

“Great choices!” Dennis said.

“You think so?” the woman said.

“Everything is good here.”

Matt saw her partner pull her closer and whisper something into her ear. She nodded and then pulled away. He knew that she was not as put-off as he was. Their zones were out of sync. Matt envisioned their personal real estate as a Venn diagram with very little overlap. Dennis was attempting to become the third circle and the guy was not going to let that happen.

“Matt—my man!”

Elliott, the older of the two men who had just arrived slapped Matt on the back.

“Hey Elliott. Great to see you—you too, Hank. What’s new?”

“Same old, same old,” Elliott said.

Matt noticed Dennis leaning toward them with ear on alert. Their conversation settled on the latest issues surrounding the injuries on the Red Sox and the more they talked the closer Dennis leaned in. Elliott glanced past Matt and discovered Dennis’s trespass.

“Who’s that?” Elliott whispered to Matt.

“Just and eavesdropping guy. He seems to be harmless but definitely obnoxious.”

“I’d call it nosey,” Hank said.

And on cue Dennis pushed himself on them.

“I think the Sox are done.”

Matt and Hank stared straight ahead. Elliott, acting a bit more forgiving, took Dennis’s bait.

“Nah, there’s still time,” Elliott said.

“Not much if you ask me,” Dennis replied.

“We didn’t ask you,” Hank whispered to himself while continuing to stare at the bottles sitting on the bar shelves.

“By the way, name’s Dennis.”

He reached behind Matt and offered his hand to Elliott. They shook behind Matt’s back and continued their conversation about baseball alternating sentences behind and in front of Matt. A thought crossed Matt’s mind that maybe he should offer to switch seats with Elliott. That would place him in a safer position. Dennis was annoying and impossible to pull away from. He decided to stay put and continue staring at the same bottles as Hank, not giving Dennis the satisfaction of thinking he was listening or cared to listen. The only way to bring the conversation back to just the three of them was to have someone else at the bar draw Dennis’s attention. He turned his head slightly toward the couple at the end of the bar.

“Excuse me for interrupting, but I was thinking of ordering the eggplant. What do you think?”

It did the trick. Dennis immediately turned his attention back to the couple and answered for them.

“It’s great, right?” he said to them.

“Yes it is,” the woman said.

Matt knew the couple was doomed for the next unknown number of minutes and a small pang of guilt hit him that quickly became replaced with the satisfaction of diffusing the annoyance of Dennis. Ellen would not have approved of his behavior, but she was busy away from the bar.

“Don’t initiate any more conversations with that guy, O.K.?” Matt said under his breath to Elliott.

“Yeah, don’t” Hank said.

They hunkered into their combined private zone as the poor couple had to endure Dennis’s meandering one-way conversation until it was time for him to leave and pick up his daughter. Elliott and Hank left after two drinks leaving Matt alone at the bar with Ellen.

“I’ll have the salmon,” he told Ellen.

“I heard you say something about wanting the eggplant.”

“That was just to get rid of Dennis. And by the way, what nights does he usually come in.”

“Wednesday or Thursday most weeks. Why?”

“Take a guess.”

 

Matt continued to frequent The Place on Fridays, sometimes seeing Allison’s group, sometimes not. When he did see them he respected their privacy by simply waving or saying hello as he was leaving. They were cordial, but continued to be unapproachable. His desire to talk more with them had not waned, but their distance was non-negotiable.

There came a week (a month or more since Matt had seen Elliott and Hank) that started out badly and by Thursday had him needing to get out and have a drink and some conversation with Ellen. Matt had forgotten the significance of Thursday at The Place when he picked his seat at the empty bar. Jazz played in the background.

“Hi Matt.” Ellen carried two large stainless steel containers with cut lemons, limes and oranges as she stepped behind the bar. “Here on a Thursday. Nice to see you.”

“Tough week.”

“Tough or boring?” she said with a hint of sarcasm.

“Both, definitely.”

“I’m still surprised to see you on a Thursday, not that I’m not happy to see you.”

“Why surprised?” The words barely left his mouth when the front door opened.

“That’s why,” Ellen said.

It was Dennis.

He sat leaving one seat between them and Matt immediately knew his bad week had just become much, much worse. And there was no one else at the bar. Matt stared straight ahead at the same bottles with an artificially serious look on his face; a look of deep thought and wanting to be left alone. He tried to fortify his zone with off-putting body language. Would it work?

“Hey, I know you.”

It didn’t work.

 

Matt had survived the Thursday despite the noise that assaulted his right ear for the hour he spent on his barstool. He had tried simply not answering or engaging Dennis, but it seemed Matt could have been a cardboard cut-out figure and Dennis would have continued droning on about what was always nothing of interest. Matt returned for his normally normal Friday after an uneventful day at work. Ellen found him sitting alone, waiting for her to bring the cut fruit and his drink.

“Two nights in a row, I’m honored,” Ellen said approaching with her sliced handiwork. Usual?”

“You know me well.”

“You didn’t look very happy last night,” she said.

“You being sarcastic?”

“I’m simply telling you what I saw.”

“Next time I’ll call ahead,” he said.

“Not a bad idea if you’re going to be that picky.”

Matt had a standard relationship with Ellen. Bartenders have to be careful with their customer relationships. And that was why her comment unsettled him. Was he that picky? He wasn’t that way toward the Allison group—he was only respectful of their desire to stay to themselves. He understood that. He enjoyed his times with Elliott and Hank. There had been other transient people who had showed up at different times. Matt had engaged them and enjoyed the conversation.

Matt had been coming to Ellen’s bar for a couple of years and he felt they had as close a relationship as the rules allowed. Matt was an easy customer, Gibsons were easy to make. He felt bad each Friday watching her manage the complicated choreograph of making the modern flavored martini. She had to set up the glasses and fill them with ice to cool them. She then proceeded to fill her stainless steel cocktail mixer with way too much liquor. Once the martini mix was ready, she dumped the ice from the staged glass and emptied the contents of the mixer into the fourteen ounce cone, a strainer held back the ice. Sometimes she topped off the drink with a touch of sparkling wine. It was all so complicated and superficial. Ellen mixed and poured his Gibson without the least bit of effort. It made him feel he was a caring customer.

“I need to know about a few things.”

“Like what?” Ellen said.

“Like why a guy like Dennis feels he has the right to eavesdrop and interrupt with strangers. He is really an annoying guy. How do you handle it?”

“It’s my job to deal with all kinds, even the annoying ones.”

“But how do you deal with his obnoxiousness?”

“Have to.”

“But I don’t”

“True, but this is a small bar and when you sit at a small bar you have to understand others may intrude. Dennis is being who he is just as you are. You’re private and impatient with people you feel are annoying. He likes to talk to strangers and doesn’t think he’s being annoying.”

“I don’t like people who don’t respect the zone.”

“Drink your Gibson.”

She had a valid point, but there were also rules of etiquette. Ellen stepped to a different area behind the bar and began making drinks for a group in the dining room.

“Think the Allison contingent is coming tonight?”

“More than likely.”

“I can never get any traction with them. They push me off with a smile and wave.”

“They don’t want the interaction, kind of like you at times. They’re into their own worlds. I suggest you leave it alone.”

Matt was on this third Gibson when the Allison detail walked through the door. They immediately sat at a table out of eye-shot of Matt. Despite what Ellen had said, he was determined to talk with them and become a friend of theirs rather than simply a bar acquaintance acknowledged from a distance. After gulping down the last of his drink he pointedly headed to their table with a three-Gibson smile on his face.

“Hello ladies. How are things?”

Allison looked away from her conversation with Betty. “How are you, Matt?”

Betty glanced at him with a smile and turned her attention to their other friend Carol. There was an empty seat at the table but neither Allison nor the other two made an ovation for him to sit and talk with them.

“Enjoy your dinners,” he said.

Allison thanked him and the others continued talking. Matt left wondering if he had made any headway and was convinced he had not. The remainder of his night would be a dinner and home.

 

The following week had started out as well as could be expected, but for some reason Matt couldn’t stay home Wednesday night. Dennis loomed large but he decided to take his chances. He felt a bit put off as he drove to The Place. It’s my place. That thought played over and over until he entered and sat at the bar.

“Usual?” Ellen asked with little engagement.

He was confused by her distance. “You O.K.?”

“Sorry, just a little tired. I’m working a double.”

“You know you work too hard.”

“It’s life, Matt. It’s responsibilities.”

“I know. Yes, the usual. Any sign of Dennis?”

“Not yet, but you know this is one of his nights.”

Ellen turned to retrieve the bottle of gin from the shelf. When she put the glass down on the square napkin he could tell that she had something to say.

“I’ve been thinking since our conversation last week. I think you’re being a little harsh about Dennis,” she said. “He’s a customer and he’s a decent guy.”

“He butts in.”

“Get over it, Matt. If you don’t like him, don’t engage him.”

“Easier said than done.”

“I don’t have the time to debate this with you. Just remember that the name of this establishment is ‘The Place’ not ‘Matt’s Place’,” Ellen said and began making drinks for more dinner patrons.

Ellen’s words echoed in his head as a challenge. Was it valid to claim special treatment as a regular customer? No, and he grudgingly knew it. He was simply another customer—yes, a good one—but only a customer with no say in the workings of the business.

“Hey.”

His daydream was instantly interrupted. It was, of course, Dennis. Matt fixed his head in a straight-ahead stare. Should I acknowledge? Can I stay frozen in this position? He wished for someone, anyone, to sit at the bar. Ellen slid in front of him and gave him the look of: “Don’t be an asshole.”

“Yeah, hey, how are you?” Matt said without choice.

“Life’s under control. My daughter is in her Bible class and I’m here killing time as usual.”

Matt’s mind raced to find a path out or a path forward that might not be as painful as he sensed it would be. No one’s life was under control. Who was this guy? Small talk—that might be the short term solution.

“Eating tonight?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, I like the burgers here.”

“I thought you liked the steak tips, or was it the eggplant, or was it the tortellini?”

“I do like the steak tips and the eggplant and the tortellini, but I’m not in the mood tonight. And actually, the burgers here are good but not the best.”

Matt had a “doomed” thought running through his mind. His attempt to make small talk was now going to become a debate about the best burgers and Matt not only didn’t care about burgers, he rarely ate them. His best course of action was to not respond to Dennis’s last conversational challenge. But with Dennis that never worked.

“Ollie’s Ground Beef Wonders in Kansas City has the best burgers I’ve ever eaten.”

Matt stared straight ahead.

“They use the best Grade A ground beef. You can get them with any cheese you want, onions, bacon—whatever. But the buns are what make them. Egg batter browned burger rolls, toasted.”

Matt stared straight ahead.

“By the way, it’s Kansas City, Kansas. Most people think that Kansas City, Kansas can’t hold a candle to its Missouri half. But it’s not true. Kansas is a true place.”

Matt had no idea what “true place” meant. He stared straight ahead.

“By the way, now that the fall is almost over, have you ever thought about what it all means?” Dennis asked.

Matt had no idea where this was going, but he had to listen.

“It’s all about colors. It’s all about Halloween and kids. Do you know the history of Halloween?”

Matt didn’t and did not care. But the conversational die was cast.

“It is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween. But you probably know all that.”

Something snapped in Matt’s head. The Gibson was beginning to give him that “I don’t give a damn what the consequences might be if  I say what I want to say.” Ellen had gone to the kitchen; this was his short opportunity.

“Dennis, I want you to listen. You come in here and you talk to people who may not want to talk to you. You push your way into conversations—into people’s personal privacy zones. You eavesdrop. It’s not polite and not cool.”

Dennis looked at Matt with confusion. “I don’t know what you mean. I like to talk.”

“But that doesn’t mean those same people want to talk to you.”

“You’re not a very nice person,” Dennis said.

“And you’re not a very observant person.”

Dennis looked away from Matt and stared briefly at the empty bar. In one motion he pushed back the stool and left.

Ellen came from the kitchen and stopped, staring at the bar. “Where’s Dennis?”

“He left,” Matt said.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing…well just a few things.”

“Like what?”

“I told him he needed to know when people wanted to talk with him and to not eavesdrop.”

“I told you this place is not your place.”

The half-drunk Gibson sat alone at the bar.

 

Matt decided to stay away for a few days and that included Friday. He felt he had disappointed Ellen and felt confused about it. She was the bartender, but just as he felt The Place was his, he felt she was his. He was a special customer, not just a customer. He would see Ellen, needed to see Ellen, and eat a great dinner on Saturday. She would forgive him; she knew his idiosyncrasies. They had shared books, music, and heartfelt talks about life and all the difficulties of taking care of a family. She had one, he did not. Ellen also knew that Matt better than anyone at this point in his life.

He arrived early as usual so he could have some private conversation with her. The bar was empty; he waited.

“Missed you last night,” Ellen said approaching the bar. She seemed happy and acted as if the last conflict between them had not happened. It wasn’t true.

“Took Friday off after the situation on Wednesday.”

“You created it.”

“I know, don’t rub it in.”

“I have to. Otherwise you’d be out of control.”

She brought him his Gibson and moved away as if not wanting to talk about anything involved—anything at all.

“You think I’m a jerk, don’t you?” he said.

She looked up from the glass washing sink. “I think you’re a great guy but—”

“But I have a flaw.”

“More than one, but don’t we all. Your flaw is that you want too much from people. You want people to understand why small talk is stupid. Here’s a tip: small talk is what this place is all about. I deal with small talk every day. It’s my job to foster small talk. And yes, you and I do engage in more meaningful conversations, but with most of my customers they just want small talk. That’s what Dennis wants and that’s what Allison’s group wants. Can you understand that?”

Could he understand that? He wasn’t sure. Matt had never shared his upbringing with Ellen. He was not from New England—he was from suburban New Jersey—a place where intellectual competition was a game that took no prisoners. Matt was out of sync with this local culture. He had also been a part of an acculturation where it was easy to be invisible and not have to deal with a person like Dennis. Ellen was right. He needed to change and when that thought fixed itself permanently in his mind, the door opened and Allison walked in with a younger woman who looked like an earlier version of her. The hostess led them to a table without hesitation—a reservation. Matt continued to sip his drink and think about his desire to have a conversation with Allison without strain.

He kept one eye on the table with both versions of Allison and one ear on the door. Although he knew that Dennis never came on a weekend night, he also knew that everything that was certain never was. Allison and her companion had not noticed him when they arrived and Matt decided not to push his way onto them. Instead, he sipped and talked to Ellen.

“Allison’s here.”

“I see her. I think that’s her daughter,” Ellen said.

“She looks like a younger version.”

“That’s the way it is, you know.”

Matt hadn’t thought about it; he had no children of his own, but it was of course true.

“You know Ellen, I like Allison, but I’m not sure how to approach her.”

“You can’t know. I told you she has walls—they all do.”

“Why?”

“That, I can’t answer. There are probably issues that they only share with themselves.”

“Why?”

“I told you I can’t answer what you’re asking. I’m a bartender. I have to maintain my distance. You know that. My business depends on not becoming too involved—just involved enough to keep them all coming. That’s my livelihood.”

Matt did know, but he also suspected that Ellen knew more but would never tell him. She couldn’t. He continued to watch Allison and her probable daughter as they received their second glasses of wine and ordered their dinners. He had had enough to drink and was ready to leave. His alcohol scrambled logic told him that they might want to share some of their evening with him. Drinking created a bold behavior and the irony was that realizing the folly of misguided bold behavior was always left for the next sober day.

“I’ve got to go, Ellen. Check please.”

He settled up and left Ellen with a forty percent tip as always. She deserved it. On his way out Matt diverted to Allison’s table. An empty chair was available.

“Hi Allison. Good to see you.”

“Hello Matt,” Allison said. Her body stiffened but Matt’s dulled sensed missed what she was trying to signal. “This is my daughter Brenda.”

“You look just like your mother.” He looked back to Allison. “May I sit for a few minutes?” He began to sit without a confirmation. She telegraphed her feelings by shifting in her chair—a motion that even she was not aware of.

“It’s Brenda’s birthday and we’re celebrating.”

“Tell me about you, Brenda,” Matt said.

Brenda looked toward her mother asking for a sign that it was O.K. for her to engage in the conversation. Allison nodded without enthusiasm. Brenda began talking about her graduation from college and her thoughts about a career and her concerns about the ability of women to truly make it in the current business climate. Matt had been involved with business since the eighties and there was nothing that he didn’t know or understand about current business life between the sexes. This was his opportunity to help Brenda and impress Allison.

“I’ve worked for old men, young men, and great women. What’s important is that you cultivate your expertise and stay away from damaging stereotypical thoughts.”

“It’s hard,” Brenda said.

“It is,” Allison said.

“It’s about paying attention and not letting—”

“Matt…I’m sorry to interrupt, but as I said, it’s my daughter’s birthday and this dinner is for us.”

He looked at Allison, turned to Brenda and realized that he was not a part of why they were here at this table. He simply did not know how to approach the people he most wanted to have as friends; the people who would interest him; the people he wanted to be with. In that moment he realized that it had nothing to do with being a good conversationalist and a likable guy but had everything to do with protecting zones.

“You don’t mind leaving…” Allison said.

“Sorry, of course,” Matt said and left the table. 

 

Bio: Kenneth Schalhoub has been writing for over four years. Starting late in life, he is trying to make up for some lost time. Although a scientist by education and work life, at the urging of a friend, he began writing in 2008. His initial interest was science fiction but he quickly realized that contemporary fiction afforded better opportunities to focus on good character development. Kenneth writes short stories and novels mostly about people who have made wrong decisions in life and are trying to find out why and reconcile who they are. He has a published novel titled "Plexor" and a short story collection titled "Smothered." He has also had stories published in selected online magazines.  Originally from East Brunswick, New Jersey, Kenneth currently lives in Keene, New Hampshire.


 

 

 
 
 
 
A SEASCAPE AND MOON PIES: REMEMBERING MICHAEL
 
By Rosemary Cacolice Brown  
 
 
 
 
Just three weeks after Michael disappeared from her life, Sarah went back to waitressing at Frisco’s Diner with the emptiness in her soul still clinging like wet gauze.  The image of him, the smell of him, lingered like the sweet scent from the honeysuckle bush just outside the opened window next to the conjugal bed they shared for five years.  If she made it through the day, fine.  If not, fine, too.  She was simply moving by rote while she still drew breath. 
 
Today, on day one of her return, the heat was oppressive and the air conditioning wasn’t working.  She whisked a damp, curly tendril from her forehead and placed her purse on the worn plywood shelf in the supply room.  After picking up a Guest Check pad she hesitated a moment, then paced her way into the kitchen behind the plate counter.  Sam Frisco was doing what he did so well on theBastian Blessing grill.  This morning he was flipping bacon for the breakfast crowd. 
 
“You doing okay,” he asked a bit awkwardly, an introvert by nature. 
 
“Yes, Sam, I’m fine,” she lied, saving him the effort of more response.  Balding with a slight paunch, he was a sweet man, yes, but not much into wordplay about anything except the diner, for which he lived and breathed.  On the other hand, his wife Veda was a complete one-eighty.  Never without her full-on makeup and garish jewelry, she’d flit through the diner chatting up the customers, always keenly perceptive about whatever bumped into her sphere. 
 
“Two days now I’ve been waitin’ on the repair guy for the conditioner,” Sam mumbled under his breath.  He glanced up over the sizzling bacon to scan the crowd.  “But, so far, ain’t nobody complainin’.”
 
Indeed.  Nobody ever did.  A spurt of envy rose as she followed his gaze, the juke box spilling out Golden Oldies from another time.  Did these people ever experience pain or sorrow of any kind?  She knew better, but it seemed as though they were enduringly content in the timeless atmosphere of the place, so mid-fifties kitsch with its apple red counter stools and black and white floor tiles. Even the coffee—no yuppie lattes in sight—was served up rich and black in plain white stoneware cups.  For the regulars—hard working, old school in perspective—it was the gathering place where simple pleasures of the day remained untouched by the current of ever-changing times. 
 
Pure, unencumbered simplicity.  Oh, how she craved that—especially now, for a little while anyway.  Later in the day she’d be back in the white siding bungalow where Michael’s proof of life was still evident—his clothes still hanging in the bedroom closet, his loud ties on the rack, his scuffed slippers neatly tucked under the foot of the bed.  Wherever her eyes focused.  But to move it all out, give it to charity, was out of the question.  No chance in hell would that happen, even though the sight and feel of it all did little to take her to the place she needed to go.  His possessions—all of them—kept him close, as if he were still there.
 
Spotting Sarah, Veda scurried back to the kitchen.  “How are you feeling, sweetie!” she inquired, her maternal bent in high gear.
 
Sarah shrugged.  “Well enough, I suppose, just a bit queasy this morning—which always happens when things bear down on me.”
 
“Then listen to me, sweetie,” Veda replied.  “You’ve been through so much and it’s your first day back. If you want to go home, we’ll understand.  You’re like a daughter to me.  You know that, don’t you?”
 
“Yes, I know,” Sarah responded, “but let’s just see how far I get today.”  God bless Veda, she thought.  She’s been there for me the whole time…
 
It wasn’t easy, but Sarah made it through the day, clocking out at six-thirty.  Home in twenty minutes, she opened the door of the bungalow, flicking on the air conditioner.  It began to hum nicely.  Michael always saw to that.  After filling the tea kettle on the kitchen stove, she moved on to the bedroom, quickly shedding her blue waitress uniform with white piping around collar and sleeves, one of two that she owned.  Then, reaching the hook inside the closet door, she pulled out her “Comfort Jeans”—branded so for full-hipped women—and slipped them on.  Next came one of Michael’s colored tees—the soft brown that matched his eyes—she pulled from the mildly nicked top bureau drawer. 
 
And then it began all over again, the rerun, just like yesterday and all the days since her life turned so swiftly to dust. 
 
While driving home from his job as a letter carrier, he was hit broadside by a texting teenager who ran a red light at a pretty furious clip.  He was gone in a flash.  Just like that.  Five years of everything right vanishing like the last dying wisp of a flickering candle.  She would never forget the last six words he spoke to her:   “See you tonight, babe.  Love ya.”
 
After that, a good number of days passed before she could complete one singular thought.  The tempo of her days no longer held meaning as she took up residence in the black hole of her now-void existence. 
 
Sam, bless him—in spite of his reticent-demeanor set point—had displayed an unusual kindness about the tragedy.  Veda came through as well; stealing away from Frisco’s whenever she could.  Like a hovering mother hen, she’d arrive at Sarah’s door with assorted offerings of diner take-out until her young ward finally peered over the rim of her self-imposed exile and pulled herself out, stumbling forward by baby steps until she found firm footing. 
 
The tea kettle whistled.  As Sarah prepped her favorite tea, Oolong with a lemon slice, the heartache she smothered all day was unleashed, rushing up and out.  Yet, in the here and now she found herself accepting it willingly.  Although she had pulled herself back to the diner, in this savored silence there was no pretense, no smiles to pony up as she served customers.  She could freely indulge the aching loneliness that held her bound, out of sight of those beyond her door.  
 
The rerun continued as she pulled up random snippets of his last recent days:  Michael after work, strolling in with a loaf of freshly baked bread from Carbona’s Deli under his arm; Michael repairing the garage door; Michael watching a ballgame—and Michael sketching.  Yes, sketching.  When inspired, he’d gather his sketch pads, charcoals and oil pastels from the bottom drawer of the second-hand hutch they found at a flea market just one year ago, thereby rendering incredibly authentic drawings of birds or animals or whatever sparked his fancy at the time.  His last effort, which he dubbed The Seascape, depicted soft rolling white caps on pristine blue waters that measured out to meet a sunny golden horizon—to his mind not there yet.  This critique frustrated her.  To her mind it was perfect and she hoped to have it framed. 
 
With her Oolong teacup now empty, she opened the refrigerator and scanned the offerings.  Not that she was hungry.  She hadn’t had a real appetite since the day her world fell apart.  Besides, she was experiencing another faint wave of queasiness, convincing herself it was likely due to stress.  Yet, she must eat something, mustn’t she?  Finding nothing worthwhile, she next opened the freezer door, settling on a tray of Lean Cuisine.  On the Saturday before Michael was gone she had purchased several, hoping to lose that few extra pounds she was still carrying.  Whatever kind made no difference as she plucked out the handiest one.  Short minutes later, with her microwave-heated tray of Salisbury steak, green beans almandine and mashed potatoes, she was perched on the green micro-blend sofa in the living room watching the “Do It Yourself” channel.  Michael always enjoyed the episodes and she imagined him alongside her, taking it all in. 
 
Evening fell away to nightfall, the most difficult time of her day. Sarah rose and hesitatingly padded her way once again to the bedroom, the very place where they had tried to conceive for so long, to no avail.  The nights had become unbearably long now, cold and empty without the warmth of his nearness.  Quickly, she removed the Comfort Jeans and soft brown tee, folding them neatly to place on the paisley-covered footstool at the opposite end of the room.  After a quick sponge and tooth brushing, she slipped into her purple nightie—the one that made him smolder—pretending he was still there.  Then, after folding back the Log Cabin quilt she had crafted two years prior, she settled between the blue muslin sheets.  Hopefully she would sleep, realizing full well how spent from exhaustive anguish she had become. 
 
Darkness eventually rolled into light.  Considering previous nights of complete wakefulness, Sarah had slept somewhat fitfully, at least adequately so.  She woke to the gentle warmth of sunshine peeking through the Venetian slats of the open bedside window that, like always, ushered in that delightful scent of honeysuckle.  Except for the mild queasiness erupting yet again, she might have savored such summer highlights. 
 
It took longer to subside this morning, but mercifully faded off after her morning cup of Oolong and some rye toast—dry, no butter.  Chastising herself, she’d have to get with it, make a better effort to get some real grocery shopping done at Manny’s Market.  But that was yet another hurdle to overcome.  On that Saturday before the accident that erased his life, they had shopped together.  Comical as it seemed that day, his boyhood yen for moon pies—those guilt-ridden patties of marshmallow cream between two fudgy layers—had never ceased.  He tossed a box into the cart.  They were still in the pantry, unopened.
 
But she’d have to get moving now, shake off the melancholy as best she could and pull herself together.    In quick-step time, after a rushed morning shower, tooth brushing and hair comb, she slipped on her uniform, following up with a quick dab of pale rose lipstick.  Hopefully she wouldn’t be late.  Frisco’s was always full-capacity around mid-morning, and Sam, who measured his worth in terms of occupied seating, was never comfortable with late excuses, however much he held it in check. 
 
Late by five minutes, she opened the door to clanking dishes, indistinct chatter and the delectable aroma of perfected coffee.  From the juke box, Charlie Rich was crooning Behind Closed Doors in his subtle, sexy way.  Sam glanced up over the plate counter and presented his comical scowl, quickly erasing it after one good elbow-nudge from Veda.  Rushing through the kitchen, Sarah opened the supply room door to again tuck her purse on the worn plywood shelf and pick up another Guest Check pad.  She could hear a repairman just outside the back door, finally tinkering with the air compressor.  When she turned, Veda was approaching. 
 
“Good morning, Veda,” she greeted, sighing.  “Sorry I’m late…had a bit of queasiness again this morning.  I’m a mess lately, I guess.”
 
Nodding, Veda studied her long and hard before replying in soft, hushed tones.   “Have you given any real thought to the reason for it?” 
 
Sarah shifted.  “What do you mean?” she asked as a pulsing throb began in her throat.
 
“I’ll tell you straight up.  You could very well be pregnant, dear.  Have you considered that?  Morning queasiness—nausea—is often a definite sign, you know.” 
 
Sarah’s mind swirled.  Had she thought about the possibility?  Yes, admittedly, somewhere inside, especially lately with so many onsets.  She’d quickly swish it from her mind, the sheer notion far too overwhelming to deal with now that Michael was gone.  In that moment, as she faced the fierce denial she’d given it all along, the room suddenly began to spin and she felt woozy. 
 
Quickly, Veda fetched a paint-chipped stool from the corner and scooted it her way.  “Sit down, try to relax and take a nice long breath,” she gently advised.  “You’ll be okay in a minute.”
 
It was less than that minute.  Sarah inhaled deeply as the spin subsided, comforted now by the circular motion of Veda’s cool fingers to the nape of her neck. 
 
“Are you better now?” Veda asked compassionately.
 
“I think so,” came her shaky reply.  What she didn’t add was that, since losing Michael, she was still spinning nonetheless, as if tossing and turning in a rudderless boat while trying to stay afloat on an open sea—just like the one in his seascape.  If Veda was spot on, could she do it? Raise a child without him through whatever choppy waters may come her way? 
 
“It’s not fair! He’s not here, so why now, Veda?” she implored, barely able to get the words out.
 
“It doesn’t matter why, love,” Veda tenderly soothed.  “It is what it is.  You’ll be stronger tomorrow and the day after that until you finally accept that he’s not coming back.  And if you are in that “family way”—as my dear departed mother used to say—it will be Michael’s child and you’ll always have a part of him.”
 
Sarah didn’t answer, absorbing as best she could Veda’s heartfelt analogy.  She wasn’t quite there yet, but was that possible?  Then, suddenly from nowhere a sweet sliver of peace brushed her soul and she looked up at Veda, her eyes exuding an almost-there acceptance.  Rising from the paint-chipped stool, she placed the Guest Check pad in the side pocket of her blue uniform with white piping and left the supply room to take on another day.
 

BIO:  Rosemary's been writing seriously from her Michigan home for over twenty-five years, always including her family surname in tribute to her late father who taught her the love of reading.  After her children were grown she took the plunge, which included Creative Writing and Marketing classes at a local college, along with an assortment of workshops.  She's been print-published several times in the days before the Internet.  Since then her fiction has been accepted thirty times online at various ezines.