[A short story for you. One of my irritations as a fiction writer is a huge collection of Supporting Cast characters that sporadically demand to be given Marquee status in tales of their own. That’s the case with the co-protagonists of the tale below. One appears in my novel Polymath. The other appears in the more recent Antiquities. If you can think of a decent title for this short story, please put it in the comments. – FWP]
On the evening of his forty-eighth birthday, Loren Eisenbud couldn’t compel himself to stay home. His mood was too good, his house was too empty, and his impulse to celebrate was too richly fueled. However, he wasn’t interested in dining alone, and Onteora County didn’t offer a wide choice of weeknight entertainments to an unaccompanied man. So, shortly after he’d returned home from his job interview, he shed his suit and tie, donned a clean sweatshirt and jeans, loosed his ponytail and brushed out his long gray hair, and headed to the Black Grape for a celebratory stein. Perhaps two.
Unsurprisingly for six PM on a Monday evening, the big tavern was very lightly populated. No one was seated around the bar. Two customers were playing the bowling machine. Two were throwing darts in the back. One was peering into the juke box. The bartender, a large, ruggedly built man he knew only as Brad, was desultorily polishing glassware and peering now and then at the others as if hoping to prompt an order.
Loren seated himself at the end of the bar nearest the kitchen. “Evenin’, Brad.”
The bartender smiled. “And to you, Loren. What’ll it be this evening?”
“Your coldest Bud in your frostiest mug, if you please.”
“Coming right up.” The bartender drew a long-necked bottle from the fridge and opened it, plucked a mug from under the bar, poured the beer into it and presented it to Loren with a flourish. Loren passed a twenty across the bar, saluted the bartender with the mug, and sipped. “Thanks, Brad. Slow night?”
The bartender shrugged. “It’s a Monday. I’ve never had a busy one.”
“Well, you know what they say,” Loren said. “‘Work is the curse—”
“‘Of the drinking class,’” the bartender finished.”
“Yeah.” Loren sipped again. “Someday I’ve got to look up this ‘they’ guy and buy him a round.”
“What if he’s soused already?” the bartender said.
Loren shrugged. “Then I’ll give him a ride home.”
“So what brings you out on a Monday? You’re not here that often even on weekends.”
Loren started to speak of his job interview at Arcologics, but stopped himself.
“Mostly just feeling good, wanted a little company.”
The bartender smirked. “Very little, if this is enough.”
Loren shrugged. “It’ll do.”
They were still bantering when an unaccompanied woman came through the swinging inner door of the tavern. She immediately had Loren’s attention.
From her cream skirt suit, her mid-heeled pumps, and her carriage, he guessed her to be middle aged, within a few years of his own age. The years did not lie heavily upon her. Few lines were visible in her face, though her makeup might have had something to do with that. She had a beautiful figure that she’d clearly taken care to maintain. Her shoulder-length blonde hair showed no signs of discoloration or brittleness.
Mid-life beauty. The hardest kind to maintain. The kind that sooner or later slips away from you no matter how hard you try to keep it.
He started to return his gaze to his mug. She surprised him by taking the stool next to him. He smiled formally at her.
“Good evening, Miss.”
She returned the smile. “Good evening, and to you, Brad. May I have a Sea Breeze, please?”
“Coming up.” The bartender set to the task.
She offered Loren her hand. “Sylvie.”
He took it and shook it gently. “Loren. Having a pleasant evening?”
Her lips compressed briefly. “No disasters so far. Yourself?”
“About the same.” The bartender set a Sea Breeze before her. She saluted him with it, and he retreated to the middle of the bar. Loren returned his attention to his mug.
“What brings you out tonight, Loren?”
“Hm? Oh, just wanted to be around other people for an hour or two.”
“Do you live alone?”
“So do I,” she said. “Peaceful, but boring.”
He smirked. “It can be, yes. Are you just home from work?”
She nodded. “Lawyer. What about you?”
“I’m a maintenance man at SUC Onteora. Janitorial work mostly, though not today.”
“Ah. What was special about today?”
He grinned. “Birthday number forty-eight.”
“Oh!” She extended her hand again, and he clasped it softly. “Many happy returns!”
He thought the conversation would lapse at that point. He had little to say to anyone. He couldn’t talk about his researches, and he knew nothing about the world of law and lawyers. He couldn’t expect her to take an interest in the day-to-day life of a janitor.
“Loren?” she said.
“Hm? Yes, Sylvie?”
“Were you ever a rock musician?”
It startled him. “Yes, I was, a couple of decades back.” He grinned. “What tipped you off?”
“Your hair,” she said. “You’ve got rock-and-roll hair. Were you a member of a group?”
He nodded. “We called ourselves Dreamcastle.”
“What kind of music?”
“Prog-rock. You probably wouldn’t have heard of us, though. We didn’t really make it.”
Once again, he expected the conversation to lapse, but she was plainly determined to keep it alive.
He started to explain, but she held up a hand, and he halted. Her expression had acquired a tinge of resignation.
“Forgive me, Loren,” she said. “I can tell you’re not into this.”
It sent a pang through him. “Why do you say so?”
“Well,” she said, “you’re not holding up your end.”
“Of the conversation, you mean?”
“Actually, Sylvie, I am ‘into this.’ I’d like to keep it going. It’s just that I don’t have a lot to talk about. Very little that a beautiful professional woman would find interesting.”
She smiled gently, ruefully.
“You might be surprised, but let it go. What do brand new acquaintances usually talk about?”
He shrugged. “Sports? Politics?”
“Stuff that doesn’t interest you?”
“Not very much. Sports are just time-killers, and as for politics…well, if I thought any power on Earth could change it…” He shook his head.
She chuckled. “Well, then I have a suggestion.”
She drained her Sea Breeze, set the glass down on the bar, and faced him squarely.
“You finish your beer,” she said softly, “and then we’ll go to your place, where I can get to know you better. Maybe you can show me what prog-rock is instead of trying to explain it in words.”
He peered at her. “Are you sure about that, Sylvie?”
She nodded, apparently perfectly serious.
He glanced at furtively Brad. The bartender showed no sign of having noticed.
He did as she’d requested.
Loren strove to retain his sangfroid as he fumbled through his fistful of keys for the one to the front door of his Oakleigh bungalow. Sylvie stood just behind him, perfectly silent. He sensed that something for which he was unprepared was in motion. It had started at the Black Grape. It reached its zenith as Sylvie pulled her Mercedes sports car into his driveway and parked it behind his little Hyundai.
It’s been a long time since I last saw a Mercedes anywhere in Oakleigh. Looks pretty odd next to my econobox.
Why is she doing this?
Why am I?
It was massively unlikely that Sylvie was there for an education in progressive rock. Yet apart from their two handshakes, she hadn’t even tried to touch him. Despite her unusual friendliness and her obvious attractions, he hadn’t even imagined putting a move on her. The two of them lived in wholly different worlds.
I suppose high-status women get itches they need scratched just as often as do we of the hoi-polloi. But why a working-class hangout like the Grape? And why me?
He found the key, slipped it into the deadbolt lock, and twisted. The door swung smoothly open. He turned to his unexpected guest, smiled at her through the early evening gloom, and gestured that she should enter. She smiled in response, preceded him into the little foyer, and turned to face him.
“Welcome to where I lay my weary head,” he said.
“Thank you, Loren,” she said. “It looks comfortable.”
“May I get you anything? I’m afraid I don’t have the fixings for a Sea Breeze.”
“That’s all right. Do you have white wine?”
“But of course, my dear. This is New York. Would a dry Riesling suit you?” She nodded. He led her into his little living room, lit the overhead lights and set them to half intensity, and bade her be seated on the sofa as he went to his kitchen. A few minutes later he returned with two stemmed glasses, a bottle of Riesling, and a plate of sliced cheese and crackers. Sylvie’s eyebrows rose in pleased surprise as he set it all down on his little coffee table and filled their glasses.
“Well!” she said. “Very nice, Loren. Do you entertain often?”
He chuckled. “Hardly ever. You’re my first guest in a long time, in fact. But I know how to do the basics, I’m usually prepared for them, and I don’t stint them when the occasion warrants.” He hoisted his wine glass. “To your health.”
“And to yours,” she answered. They clinked and sipped.
“So,” he said, as he turned to look directly at her, “what would you like to know about me?”
Her expression became curiously serious.
“Everything, dear. Absolutely everything.”
Loren would never forget the strangeness of the two hours that followed. He took her invitation at face value and talked about himself: his work, his pastimes, his entertainments, his years as a performer, all of it. He even said a little about his researches into unusually compelling combinations of light and sound rhythms. He never felt the least inclination to shade the truth or censor himself.
Sylvie listened for two hours without saying a word. Her eyes never left his face. Her attention seemed absolute and complete. She remained riveted until, having edged too close to matters he felt he could not disclose, he forced himself to cease.
He felt his face reddening in the sudden silence. She smiled gently.
“Thank you, Loren.”
“But for what?” he said.
“Trusting me with all that.”
He frowned. “A lot of boring personal crap about the life and times of a janitor and failed musician.”
She shook her head. “Not boring, dear. Not to me.”
He took a moment to gather himself.
“How could that be?”
Her eyes twinkled. “I did mention that I’m a lawyer, didn’t I?” He nodded. “Well, what do you think my life is like?”
“I haven’t any idea, Sylvie,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me?”
Her lips compressed momentarily.
“I’m an associate in a large firm in Ithaca,” she said. “I spend three-quarters of my work day listening to other people lie. People who want something, usually something they’re not entitled to. People who want a lawyer’s help getting it. If you think your little soliloquy was boring, imagine…well, just imagine.”
“That’s your whole day?” he murmured.
She nodded. “That, some drafting, a little record-keeping and organizing, and deciding whether to send a potential client upstream to one of the partners.”
And she has to sit and listen. Just listen.
“Hell, yeah. It doesn’t sound like interesting work.”
“Most legal practice isn’t. But both my parents were lawyers, so I knew fairly well what I was getting into.”
“Still,” he said, “what made you want to hear about my comings and goings? Don’t you spend enough of your life listening to other people’s monotonous garbage?”
“Yes, Loren, I do.” To his surprise, she reached for his hand. “But not nearly enough talking to people who won’t lie to me.” She held up her left hand. “Notice anything?”
“Yeah. No wedding ring.”
“Why do you think that is?”
He started to answer, halted himself.
Beautiful, immaculately groomed, obviously well off and from a well-off family. Major hottie in every way. Yet she came straight from her office to a working-class bar and picked up a janitor. What’s the catch?
“I’m not going to guess, Sylvie,” he said at last.
She smiled sadly. “What do you think it’s like to be lied to all day? What do you think the effect on the lawyer is, after ten or fifteen years of that?”
His chest tightened. He willed her to continue.
“A lot of us,” she said after a moment, “stop believing that there are any honest men. That there’s any such thing as truth. A lot of us become dishonest ourselves. It’s a problem for the whole profession, and judging by the state of the courts and the law, it’s having a terrible effect.
“I reached my limit today. Most days, I’d have stayed in the office until eight or nine. I have no one to go home to, so why not put in the time and make a few more bucks? But today I’d had enough. I needed some truth. The company of someone, anyone who wouldn’t lie to me. So at four I bagged it and headed out.
“I went to the Grape on impulse. Tonight wasn’t the first time. But always before, just about as soon as I arrived, men would start trying to pick me up. I understand it. There are a lot of lonely men out there, and a lot of them spend their evenings in places like the Grape. When an attractive woman wanders in alone, some of them will think what the hell, why not take a shot? But I wasn’t looking for sex. I certainly wasn’t going to give it to a man who’d lie to me to get it, and most men do.
“When you saw me walk in there this evening, you looked me up and down. It didn’t offend me. It’s natural. But you surprised me by turning away. I could tell that you had no plans to make a move, even though I was the only woman in the place and you were alone at the bar. There was something promising in that, so I perched myself next to you and chatted you up, and with every word out of your mouth I got more hopeful that I’d encountered someone who wouldn’t lie to me. Someone who lives in reality and accepts it for what it is, including the realities about himself. So I picked you up and induced you to take me home, because I wanted more of it.” She caressed his hand. “Does that sound just too pathetic?”
“No,” he whispered. “Not at all. But what now?”
She fixed her eyes upon his.
“Anything you want, Loren. Anything at all, for as long as you want it.”
He forced calm upon himself, thought for a long moment, and smiled.
“I think what I want,” he said, “is to take you to dinner. Have you had dinner?” he said.
“Well, would you care to join me?”
Sylvie offered Loren the keys to her Mercedes without being asked. It was an unexpected challenge to get into the low-slung sports car, but once inside he found the driving position perfectly comfortable. It surprised him to discover that she’d chosen a car with a manual transmission, and pleased him that he hadn’t lost the skill of driving one.
He piloted the muscular machine into the city of Onteora at a controlled, always legal speed. Sylvie sat in the passenger seat with her purse in her lap, composed but silent.
The parking lot at Costigan’s Pub was thinly populated. He chose a space and parked, killed the engine, and turned to her.
“Have you eaten here before?” he said.
She shook her head. “I assume the food is edible.”
“Oh, better than that. Mike and Pat hired a good cook, and he uses only good ingredients.” He circled the car, opened her door, and helped her out. “The dishes may be unexciting, but the food is always first-rate.”
There were few patrons inside, all seated at the bar. Loren directed her to a booth, seated himself, and signaled for a waiter. Pat Costigan came out from behind the bar to attend them.
“Good evening, Loren, Miss. Do you have a craving for anything specific, or should I fetch menus?”
Loren looked a question at Sylvie. She smiled. “You order for both of us.”
“Well, Pat,” he said, “under normal circumstances I’d ask for my usual, but as I’m in company this evening, and very charming company at that, I think I’ll have a chicken pot pie. Would that suit you, Sylvie?”
“I’m sure that will be fine.”
“Very good,” Costigan said. “Anything to drink?”
“Cobblers for both of us,” Loren said.
“So let it be written,” Costigan said, “so let it be done. Back shortly, folks.” He disappeared through the swinging doors to the kitchen.
“I have to ask, you know,” Sylvie said. “What’s your ‘usual?’”
He grinned. “A bacon cheeseburger.”
“Well, if that’s what you wanted, why not have one?”
“Because the hamburgers here are juicy. Really juicy. And if I were to get any of that juice on my shirt…or worse, on you…I think I’d die. I’d certainly want to.”
“Oh.” She looked down at her blouse and suit jacket. “Considerate. Thank you.”
“Think nothing of it. And with that,” he said, “your turn has come. Let me have all the details of your life. Omit nothing, however scandalous.”
She grinned. “Okay.”
Pat Costigan arrived with their dinners.
As he’d requested, Sylvie told him about everything. She spoke of her high school years, carefree and filled with adolescent pleasures. Then came four years at SUC Onteora and a young man she’d met there and loved, but whom her parents had disapproved. After college came law school, again by her father’s decree, then the bar exam, and a brief interval dithering over what to do next.
Her father greased her entry into the legal profession. He called upon his circle of acquaintances, most of whom owed him favors, and secured her a place at Weems, Farkas in Ithaca. After fourteen years of unending tedium, sixty-hour weeks punctuated solely by eighty-hour weeks, she’d risen to senior associate, but her prospects for becoming a partner appeared slim.
She had no siblings. She had never married. Her parents were both dead. Since their passing, there’d been no one who’d mattered to her.
It was a depressing recitation. Loren struggled to maintain a bland expression as he listened. When she’d run down, he found himself without anything to say.
He fell back on what seemed to him the emptiest, most banal of responses. Yet it was all that honesty would permit.
“Thank you, Sylvie.”
She smiled faintly. “But for what?”
He drew a deep breath.
“For letting me see all that sadness.”
She nodded and looked away.
“Did it help?”
She peered at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said, “how do you feel right now? Did getting it out lighten the load at all, or does it weigh you down just as much as before we met?”
She was slow to answer.
“It did help some,” she said. “I’ve got to say, though, I didn’t expect that it would.”
“Then why tell me all that?”
She shrugged gently. “I just figured I owed you, after everything you’ve told me about your life.”
“You didn’t.” He reached across the table and took her hand. “You don’t owe me anything. It’s been a pleasure listening to you and getting to know you. I’m very glad we met.”
Animation flowed into her face. Her hand tightened on his.
“I don’t get it, Loren,” she said. “Where was the pleasure in that?”
He took a moment to organize his thoughts.
“First,” he said, “there’s what you said a while back. There are a lot of lonely people in the world. I’m one of them. I was in the Grape to be around other people, even if they’re people I don’t know and have nothing in common with. So I’m grateful for your company and your conversation.
“Second, there’s your interest in me. You’ve got to be interested in someone to spend so much time listening to him and talking to him. Lonely people need that kind of affirmation, especially if it comes with a possibility of being less lonely in the future.
“But third—and this is the Ace kicker—there’s your honesty. Yes, you’re lonely and sad, and that’s not often a basis for a stirring conversation. Still, a lot of women would never dream of letting any of that show. Especially women of your status. But you gave it to me freely. I loved it. I wallowed in it. I’m more grateful for it than I can say.
“A lot of men would look at you and figure ‘beautiful rich chick, not a care in the world, got the world by the tail.’ I might have thought that if, when you walked into the Grape, you’d just sat by yourself, had a couple, and headed out. Instead you gave me a gift I could never have expected. An intimacy I’ve never had with a woman before, much less with a brand new acquaintance. What tipped you off that I would react this way?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “There wasn’t anything specific. I just had a feeling.”
“Well, your feeling was right.” He caressed her hand. “Did you enjoy your chicken pot pie?”
She appeared momentarily confused. “Yes, I did. And that nice drink you ordered for me, too. What did you call it?”
“A Cobbler. So what now?”
“What would you like to do?” He grinned. “Have you had enough seeing and being seen with Onteora’s jet set, or are you still rarin’ to go? I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “I don’t know of much we could do this late on a Monday night that’s fun. Unless you bowl?”
She chuckled. “No, I can hardly even lift the ball.”
“Well, so much for that, then.”
Pat Costigan ambled by, laid the check on the table, and silently departed. Loren glanced at it, pulled two twenties out of his wallet, laid them on the check, and sat back.
Sylvie looked at him curiously.
“Something wrong, Sylvie?”
An unreadable current crossed her face.
“There is one fun activity that comes to mind,” she said.
“Ah. I think I know which one you mean.”
“I was wondering if it would occur to you. Well?”
“Can you stand one more disclosure, Syl?”
“It’s been a long time.”
“Oh? How long?”
“Fifteen years. Pretty soon it’ll be sixteen.”
Her naughty smirk surprised him. “Got you beat!”
He gaped at her. “Hm? Really?”
“And for true.” Her eyes twinkled. “Think you remember the moves?”
He rose, stepped out of the booth, and offered her his hand. She rose and took it.
“If not,” he said, “I’ll fake it.”
Copyright © 2021 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.