This chunk from Chapter 8 was one of my favorites to write, both for the hope and spontaneity represented by Monica and for the harsh reality Ben is reminded of when he ‘chats’ with his ex-wife. I have to admit that the last line is simply one of the best I’ve ever penned (which might make you laugh). Enjoy!
An annoying raindrop hits Ben’s nose as he climbs the stairs to the upper floor of Donovan’s Restaurant. The place is a cabin-like structure with thick beams and good lines and a view. Decent steaks with sweet-potato fries, a couple bold pasta dishes, hearty microbrews. It’s an unexpected find in Hood River. And its location is far-enough uphill from downtown that it isn’t overrun with tourists. Few young families or kids in their twenties.
Ben pauses just inside the door, ruminating. How ironic that his regular haunt shares a name with his now-accomplice, Simon.
How unanticipated any of this is. Here and now.
A waitress with dark curls smiles at him from the register. “Hey, Benny, come grab yourself a seat.”
Pauline’s her name. She’s called him Benny for a while, though he can’t recall specifically giving her permission to do so. However, with eyes like hers she can call him anything she wants.
The oil for the fries is an intoxicating scent—rich and (for those over age 45) sirenesque. Ben nods to a familiar face and takes a seat at the far end of the bar, where it hooks left for two spots. From there, he has a commanding view of the restaurant and the vista beyond. The world outside is a mosaic of blues punctuated by orange lights. Twilight in the Pacific Northwest.
“What are you having, my good man,” Pauline asks, standing inches from his shoulder. Floral perfume.
He taps the menu item, a barbecue-bacon cheeseburger.
“I don’t know, that’s dangerous,” she says with a coy smile. “Think you can handle it?”
Yes, my ticker’s fine, you goddamned sprite! He nods, trying not to imagine her sliding her skirt up, stockings or nylons and then…“Sweet potato fries,” he says. “And some greens to start. The pear-walnut one.”
“All right,” she says. “What about a beverage?”
He orders the pear cider on tap. She replaces his menu and, he’d swear, wags her butt a little when she walks away.
Don’t get excited, Colleen would say now. She’s only looking out for her tip jar.
She’s right, Ben knows, un-cynically. What in the hell would a girl like Pauline want with a man like him—surplus gut, crow’s feet and 25 added years? Still, the attention alone is fun. It’s been a while since his last romp.
A peal of laughter breaks out from a table in the corner—the kind of outburst that could be an office’s dirty little secret suddenly come to light. One that’s so good the world is invited to partake in your merriment.
Not enough of those in architecture, Ben thinks, attacking his salad.
“Is this seat taken?” It’s a woman’s voice, rather velvety.
Ben shakes his head—instinctively, out of politeness—before looking up. A slight woman in a suit folds her jacket and settles onto the stool next to him. Her businesslike dark hair and piercing eyes are offset by a gentle, pretty face. He tries to hide his surprise. She’s not the kind of bar mate he’d expect to find, here.
“You look local,” she says. “What’s good, here?”
She accepts a menu from Pauline and studies Ben.
“Well,” he says, thinking, “The Asian chicken salad’s pretty good. Eggplant penne—”
She cuts him off. “Nah, I’m not in the mood for frou-frou tonight. What about meat?”
“They make a mean sirloin,” Ben blurts out, halfway knocked off his stool. “And I’m having the barbecue cheeseburger.”
“Barbecue burger sounds good,” she says.
“I should warn you, it’s messy.” Ben is suddenly aware of a cold smudge—sauce—at the corner of his mouth. He wipes it away quickly.
“Oh, I’m a divorce lawyer. I can do messy.” She grins. Pauline comes over and the woman gives her order. She nods to Ben’s glass. “Good color. What’s that, a cider?”
“M-hmm, pear cider,” Pauline says.
The woman nods, dismissing Pauline, and turns to Ben. “I’m Monica Stoner.”
“Nice to meet you. Ben what?”
He didn’t realize his omission. How it’s rude, if subconsciously necessary, to not give out your last name.
Recover, tell her, fast, you idiot!
“Ben Gerrard. Sorry, I’ve never been good at introductions.”
“Even yourself. Hmm. Well, in my business, I have to be. Especially with this last name.”
“Stoner did you say? Yeah, I can see how that might be awkward.”
“Kids love it.” She makes a funny face. “I thought about changing it about fifty times. In the end, I figured it would be a good party gag, at least.”
“Either that or an occupation of old? ‘Got a heretic? I can take care of him for you.’ Or that part of the Hajj where they stone the devil obelisk. Did you read The Kite Runner?”
Ben nods slowly, recalling the stadium stoning scene.
“Jesus, how awful.”
Pauline delivers her cider, giving Ben a moment to recollect. “Well, I don’t think you’d look very good in, what was it, a white leisure suit and John Lennon glasses?”
She clinks his glass and drinks. This feels eerily reminiscent of something. A time or day he can’t immediately place. But when has he been so lucky?
“So what about you? What’s your slave driver’s name?”
Ben pauses, caught off-guard by her sheer wonderfulness. “Oh,” he snaps to, deciphering. “Work, right. I’m an architect.”
“All right. Commercial or residential?”
“Mostly residential, now.”
“What was your first project?”
“What, solo?” She nods. He searches. “A bathroom for the Klamath County jail. They rejected the marble top for the vanities.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Yes, I’m kidding. Why do you ask?”
Monica’s food arrives. She nods to Pauline and gives Ben a part-shrewd, part-coy expression.
“I’m about to get barbecue sauce all over my face, so I want to know, first, if I’m dealing with some massive ego. I know the artsy-fartsy types.”
Ben explodes with laughter and she laughs, too. He’s relieved. He’s taken.
“Well, thanks. I haven’t laughed that hard in years. No, I’m not artsy-fartsy, if you must know. In my field, art tends to get slaughtered on the altar of pragmatism. I design it, but somebody else picks the paint color.”
Monica nods approvingly and dives in. “Oh, that is evil,” she says. “Good thing I ordered medium-well. The last time I ordered a medium-rare, I got a burger that was still voting.”
“Aw, where’s your sense of adventure? Have a couple vodka tonics and call it good.”
“Right. I don’t have iron-gut, like you men-folk. Besides, I stay away from the hard stuff. Brings up too many bad memories. I was married to a closet drunk.”
She nods. “Three good years, four so-so ones and one bad one. It ran in his family. I don’t think I drove him to drink, but one can’t be sure.”
“Hmm, did you let him watch football on the weekends?”
“Yup. He didn’t even have to do the lawn, first.”
Ben works on his fries. “Then you didn’t drive him to drink.”
She regards him with a penetrating look. “Spoken like a man with experience.”
“I’ve been around,” Ben concedes. “What did he do?”
“Surgeon. He did shoulders and rotator cuffs.”
“Sounds like tough work.”
She makes a face. “You’ve got to deal with your own choices, though, you know? Sleep in the bed you make.”
A knife of cold reality slides into Ben’s cheek. He forces a grin of agreement.
Seated in his old Volvo wagon—which seems ancient and un-stylish compared to Monica’s green Audi—Ben has a conversation with Colleen. An imagined one. Innumerable personal debates and quandaries have played out this way, and why not? Even now, on the other side of divorce proceedings, she represents his moral compass. And it isn’t as if he can’t imagine her every response to a quid pro quo.
“Now this happens, Benjamin? Now?”
“Great timing, I know. What’s a man to do?”
“Chase her, I guess. But she’s a divorce lawyer, so prepare to be trampled. That and the other thing.”
“That demon in the basement. What happens when she wants to see your wine cellar? ‘Oh, here’s a dandy merlot. Never mind my oversized friend, here.’”
“Why would that happen?”
“Oh, come on. You going to tell me you wouldn’t want it?”
“No, of course I would.”
“M-hmm, who wouldn’t? I saw that figure. Anyway, the point is, how far can this go? How long?”
“I don’t know. What’s wrong with a fling, some good conversation like we used to have?”
“And nothing more? Right. You’re you. Your heart’s not a musty, top-shelf book. Back off before she gets her hooks into you.”
“Sounds almost regretful.”
“Try truthful. This will only cause you pain.”
“The truth will surface.”
“Is that right?”
“Yup. So, Joel wins the game and then…what, you and Tommy take this guy out into the woods and shoot him? Not a chance.”
“I don’t know.”
“Exactly. Now you’re up the big tree and you’re playing with a pretty bird you can’t have. Crash.”
“Thanks for being on my side.”
“Love hurts, Baby.”
copyright 2010 by Justin Edison