Curve

Jack and Sheila went to the Laidlaw Grill every Friday night for fried perch and Manhattans. They always sat in the Shingle Room, right next to the bar, and especially liked the third booth on the left because the foam-cushion seats were covered with fabric, not plastic like the other booths. Marion, the head waitress, kept an eye on the booth and always made sure to seat the other customers in the plastic booths first, to save the fabric one for Jack and Sheila.

But tonight, they'd been thrown a curve. A tour bus had arrived, full of white-haired ladies in sequined sweatshirts and white-haired men in bright-colored golf shirts, who had come to town to shop at the Sandstone Outlet Mall and golf at Canyon Ridge. The bus arrived on Friday afternoon and was leaving on Sunday at noon, which meant two dinners and Sunday brunch, not including Saturday's breakfast at the hotel and lunch at the mall or the golf course. But although there were certainly a few good restaurants in town, including a Mexican place and a brand-new Chinese one, Laidlaw Grill got the most business, probably because of the air-conditioning.

For Jack and Sheila, this meant they would have to forfeit their fabric booth to a foursome from Ann Arbor, who would order the prime rib cooked very well done and who would pour steak sauce on their baked potatoes. The men would have ended the round of golf with a round of drinks, and they'd be on their third or fourth scotch by the time their steaks reached them, and the women would order Old Fashioneds at the bar while they waited for the booth, leaving the maraschino cherries to leak rheumy red syrup on the plain white cocktail napkins. Sheila pointed this out to Jack while they sat waiting at the bar, their pet booth pilfered.

"These ladies, they never eat their cherries," she said, straightening her back and tucking her ankles under the barstool.

Jack stared at the TV screen above the bar. A picture of a fish perched over the news anchor's shoulder.

"That's a trout," Jack said, squinting up at the screen.

"When I get a drink with cherries in it, I always eat the cherries," Sheila said, clinking the ice in her glass.

"Mm-hm," Jack said. "Look, it's Lake Pines." He pointed to the screen.

Sheila drank the rest of her Manhattan and set her glass on the cocktail napkin, in the same place she had set the first drink, so the moisture only made one wet ring. She straightened the napkin so it sat in a perfect square directly in front of her.

"I'll have to get the grill ready before Dick and Susan come in," Jack said, still staring at the TV. "Dick has some Alaskan salmon I'd like to cook up."

Sheila tapped her right index finger against her glass three times. Then she tapped her left index finger against the glass three times. Then she tapped both index fingers three times. She pursed her lips and exhaled through her nose. She watched her breath curve in spirals to the floor, where it gathered in a silver ball, like mercury or a mirror.

"Jack, you know I -- "

The foursome in the fabric booth burst into laughter, one of the ladies squealing like a seal.

"You know I can't eat salmon," Sheila finished, quietly, staring at her fingers.

"What's that?" Jack leaned his ear towards Sheila.

"You know -- " she started again and was interrupted by more laughter. Sheila turned her head to glare at the booth and felt the top of her skull popping open, setting free a thousand hungry wasps to sting the sequined-sweatshirt ladies to death. She watched their swollen red faces gasp for breath, watched them flail in their seats like fish, ripping out their white hair in clumps, and she calmly smoothed the napkin on her lap.

Jack squinted at the screen and leaned his whole head sideways toward Sheila.

"Who what?" he asked.

Sheila sighed and straightened her spine. She folded her hands in her lap, then unfolded them and placed them around her glass. She glanced over at Marion, who sat on the stool behind the hostess desk, hunched over a romance novel, her opalescent pink eyeglasses perched on the tip of her nose. Sheila reached her arm out, stretched it across the room, and pushed Marion's glasses back into place on the bridge of her nose. Then she placed one hand on Marion's lower back and the other on her shoulder, forcing her to sit up straight.

A dark shadow fell across Sheila's line of vision.

"How's it going over here, folks? Ready for another?" The bartender's sudden appearance startled Sheila so her hands shook, knocking over her glass, spilling ice all over the bar.

"Oh, sorry," she said, reaching for the glass and elbowing Jack, who finally looked away from the TV.

"Jesus, Sheila," he said.

"That's all right there," the bartender smiled as he picked up the glass and quickly wiped the ice away with his damp white towel.

"It just toppled over," Sheila said. "I didn't mean it, I just --"

"That's all right," the bartender reassured her, smiling again. He was new here, a nephew of the owner, in town for a few months to stay with his family while the courts worked out some legal issues on his divorce. He had told the whole, painfully detailed story to Jack and Sheila last week while he served them their Manhattans. Sheila had sliced off her fingertips with a razor blade last week while he served them their Manhattans.

"Better keep your eye on her, kid," Jack said, leaning over the bar and winking. "One more of them and she'll be dancing on the table."

Sheila glanced down at her hands and her stomach burned.

"Oh, that's all right, Mr. -- Jack. Sir." The bartender kept his eyes on Jack and smiled as he wiped the bar. He glanced at Sheila, but only for a second. "Anything else I can get you folks?"

Sheila looked over at Marion, who had taken off her glasses and was now holding the wrinkled paperback at arm's length. The foursome in the fabric booth stood up and were putting on their coats, all smiling and glowing rosy from the shopping, sunshine, and scotch. Sheila's stomach burned harder and her throat tightened.

"I think we've got ourselves a table," Jack said, standing up.

"I'd like another Manhattan, please," Sheila said, circling her left wrist with her right index finger and thumb. She massaged the curve at the base of her hand and rested her thumb on her pulse.

Jack laughed and pulled up the waistband of his navy blue pants.

"What, we got something to celebrate tonight that I don't know about?" he said to the bartender, who laughed and kept his eyes on Jack.

Sheila's eyes welled up and she felt her cheeks flush.

"I'd like another drink, Jack," she said, forcing each word as if she was just learning how to talk.

Jack put his hand on her shoulder and squinted at her face, then shrugged and nodded to the bartender.

"All right, get her a drink," he ordered. "Get me one, too, kid -- a bourbon on the rocks.

"Right away," the kid said, and got to work.

Jack kept his hand on her shoulder and stared up at the TV screen until the kid placed the drinks on the bar. Sheila tightened the grip on her wrist and cracked her forearm in two. It sounded clean and fresh, like snapping a dill pickle or a carrot stick.

"That'll be five-fifty, sir," the bartender said.

Jack placed seven dollars on the bar, picked up his drink and winked.

"You're a good kid," he said. "You oughta take up golf."

Sheila leaned across the bar and stuck her tongue down the kid's throat.

When the table was clean, Marion led Jack and Sheila to their booth. Sheila walked in front of Jack, holding her head high as they weaved through tables of visiting Ann Arborites. Most of the golf-shirted men wore windbreakers out to dinner and Sheila was pleased that Jack had dressed up in his navy-and-green sport jacket. He was much more polished than these men. These men married fat ladies in sequins. Sheila was straight as a ruler, had never puffed out from babies or baked goods. She had decided to wear her trim beige slacks and lavender blouse. Her slip-ons were lavender, and so were her pearl-drop earrings, and even her beige leather purse had a lavender clasp. Very coordinated, she smiled, very together.

They slid into the booth at exactly the same time, opened and closed the menu at exactly the same time, looked at each other, and smiled.

"Well, I know what I'm getting," Jack said and laughed.

"Well, I know what I'm getting," Sheila said and smiled.

Jack picked up his glass and said, "To another Friday night at Laidlaw's."

Sheila clinked her glass against his, smiled, and drank half of her drink in one sip. The booth curved around them and began to turn, slowly at first, then faster and faster, like the Teacups ride at the carnival. Sheila pressed her foot on the brakes and everything slowed, then finally stopped.

"Where are Dick and Susan right now?" she asked, straightening her napkin on her lap so it lay flat and perfectly rectangular. She took another sip of her drink and placed it back on the wet circle on the white napkin.

"They're in Palm Desert, remember? Dick's got that business over at Springs Ranch. He's got some Alaskan salmon I'd like to cook up. I'll have to get the grill ready."

A young waitress named Tina came by.

"Hi, how are you folks this evening?" Tina asked, her eyes bright, her teeth white, her ears pierced. Sheila liked that Tina wore pantyhose in leg color. She reached her arm beneath Tina's skirt and pinched her rear.

"Well, hello, Tina!" Jack boomed, smiling and puffing up his chest. Tina giggled and looked at Sheila.

"I'll have the perch and another Manhattan, please," she said.

Jack raised an eyebrow at her. Sheila smiled in return. Tina giggled and turned to Jack.

"I'll have the perch, as well," he said, "and another bourbon on the rocks."

Tina giggled and bounced away. Jack stared at her bouncy butt. Sheila sighed and stared at Jack. Jack squinted across the room at the TV at the far end of the bar.

"Maybe we could go out to Palm Desert this year," Sheila said, straightening her back.

"Mm-hm," Jack said, staring at the TV. "Look, it's the water building."

The ceiling began to drip on the crown of Sheila's head. Drip. Drip. Drip. She patted at the dampness in her hair, but when she looked at her hand, it was covered in blood. Sheila reached across the table and smeared the blood across Jack's cheek.

"Dick's brother works at the water plant in Lincoln," he said. "I wonder what kind of a grill he's got."

Tina returned with their drinks, and Sheila grabbed hers like it was about to walk away. Jack looked at her, then at her drink, then back at the TV across the room.

"Lacey Collins, you know, the gal at the library, she's got a place out in the desert," Sheila said, clinking the ice in her glass. "Though I don't know if it's Palm Desert or if it's just the desert. It might be in Arizona somewhere, Phoenix or Tucson, or maybe that's Judy Florence I'm thinking of, you know, the gal at the supermarket who runs the canned food drive? I know she's got a place out in the desert somewhere, too, but then, you know, she's a real desert kind of a person - they call them desert rats." She laughed. "Isn't that funny? I mean, rats, rats, it's like calling them desert cockroaches!"

Jack squinted at the TV.

"I mean, cockroaches, that's not really even an awful term because if you look at the life of cockroaches, well, you know they've been around forever. Did you know that? They've been around since the dinosaurs' time, they're like actual living dinosaurs! Sandy Simmon's husband George used to always say that he believed in the cockroach way of life, you know, if you live like a cockroach, you'll live forever? Ha! I stepped on him for her! I did, did you know that? Sandy wouldn't do it, so I did it for her! I stepped on her cockroach, roaches, rats, you know and she even looked like a rat with her beady little eyes and her limp little ponytail and her little buck teeth going fft-fft-fft all the time. Maybe she was a rat, maybe she was the one I really should have stepped on, although I guess you don't really step on rats, do you? I guess you probably poison them, with rat poison, yes, that's it, rat poison. Have you ever seen that stuff? Rat poison! It looks like sugar! Maybe she was a rat. Maybe she really is a rat! I think she's a rat, Jack, honey, I think Sandy's a rat!"

She laughed again, throwing her head back and shaking her hair. She took another long sip of her drink and placed it back on the table, on its marked wet circle. Jack stared at the TV. Sheila picked up her drink again and finished it off, then straightened the napkin on top of the place mat in front of her, so everything was lined up neatly. She was breathing heavily and sweat beaded her lip. Her fingers circled her wrist, pausing on her pulse. Sheila took three deep breaths and felt the pounding slow down. She straightened her silverware and smoothed the napkin on her lap.

"If we go to the desert, I won't call you a rat," she said hoarsely, smiling. "I'd call you... I'd call you a masharino cherry. Maraschino sherry. Mara-schino cherry. That's what I'd call you. 'Cause you're syrupy and sweet." Sheila giggled. "I could pour you over pancakes, just like maple syrup. Maraschino pancake sauce, mmmm..."

Sheila reached across the table and placed her hand on Jack's arm. He turned his attention away from the TV and, for a moment, a glow of recognition passed between them. Sheila's shoulders softened, and Jack smiled.

Then the room got cold. The lights dimmed to a rust-colored glow, and Sheila felt her head nod towards the table. She pulled her hand back from Jack and gripped the booth. Someone shoved icicles in her ears, and she went inside her head and screamed for help. In the distance, she heard Jack whisper, "Jesus, Sheila," as she dropped her head sideways and vomited all over the fabric-covered booth.

 

Jack and Sheila never listened to the radio in the car, but tonight Jack tuned to the AM jazz radio. He tapped his fingers along on the steering wheel to Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, staring straight ahead at the road as he drove. Sheila curled up in the passenger seat and stared through the window at the moon, as clear and round as a white ball on a putting green. She watched as it slowly rolled from the sky down to the road in front of the car.

"Take me home," she muttered to the moon, smiling weakly, as her eyes dropped shut and the car rounded the final curve into the driveway.

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