"I was born with a flair for the dramatic but it was ridiculed out of me young. Not eradicated entirely, just driven under the bone, deep into the heart and spleen.” She pauses as if that’s all there is, finishes her Old Fashioned, plucks the cherry out with two long, slender, well- manicured fingers, tilts her elegant head back exposing a long supple neck and plops the glistening cherry in her open mouth. After she chews her cherry she continues, staring into her empty highball glass. “As I grew teeth, I ground them into cracked and splintered nubs. I eventually made tourniquets of the muscles surrounding my head, which I’m sure must feel like the binding of Chinese women’s feet in the old days. I only got to perform when I was assured of privacy. And there was precious little of that. Not that we were a big family. No, there were only the three of us. But there was only room for one performer in that small audience.”
She says this with a straight face and in a fairly convincing southern accent. Her voice is husky and deep, a whisky voice with that rough edge of a smoker. The whole thing sounds like something from a play. She’s addressing this load of crap to some big old John Wayne clone who’s muscled himself into the narrow space next to her at the bar. She’s responding to something he whispered into her right ear. He looks frankly bewildered, furtively glancing around for less complicated prey.
You can tell by the way she looks that what she says just might be true, but she tells it like a bald-faced lie. She’s a head-turner. Not flashy-dramatic, but eye-catching. Classy, chiseled face. Even if she isn’t terribly thin or young, she’s got great bones. Her clothes are expensive—quality, well-tailored, good fabrics. Her dark brown hair is cut about shoulder length and it gleams. It sways when she turns her head. Everything about her is striking, but quietly so. She’s the sort of woman everyone will turn to look at, but won’t approach. She looks self-contained and needing no one. Part of it’s her age. She’s not young enough to hustle. Not old enough to con. And despite that line of bullshit and her age, she’s sexy.
The man who sits next to her at the bar wears a huge silver and turquoise watch and matching belt buckle. He’s tall, balding, and beer-bellied. She isn’t wearing any jewelry, no ear rings, no wedding band, no watch. They don’t even come from the same planet.
A tall, slender man in his thirties sits at the far end of the bar where it curves around and ends in the wall--something to lean on if need be. It’s the opposite end from where the bartender takes orders from the cocktail waitresses. It’s a good place to watch the waitresses and the rest of the bar clientele. He watches one of the cocktail waitresses for a few minutes. She smiles at the bartender as she rattles off the list of drinks she needs, and the second he turns away and starts working on her order, her face is a total blank, completely losing it’s warmth, as if a light went off. And just then she catches the slender man watching her. Her eyes lock on his, and he finds it impossible to look away from that completely expressionless stare, as if it were a dare. When she finally turns away from the bar with her two vodka tonics and three 7&7s loaded on that tiny tray, he looks down the bar at the dark-haired, older woman who is watching him with a bemused expression on her very interesting face.
She raises one eyebrow and lifts her highball glass in a salute. He lifts his drink to salute her back and feels his face flush. He signals the bartender, and when he looks back up at her, she’s looking in the mirror behind the bar bottles. At first he thinks she’s looking at herself, but her face is completely unstudied, and it occurs to him she’s watching the table behind her. She has the rapt expression of a voyeur. When the bartender takes his order, the slender man also orders one for “the great broad drinking the Old Fashioned,” he nods in her direction.
A small, aged, black man at the piano finishes “‘Round Midnight.” The slender man at the bar pays for the bourbon and soda the bartender sets in front of him and leaves his stool to walk over and put a dollar in the pianists tip jar.
When he passes the back of the aging beauty’s barstool, she’s still watching the table behind her in the mirror. She sees him pass in front of them. When he walks back, after delivering his compliments to the pianist, she turns her head and flashes him a high voltage smile. He smiles back. She says, “Hard to beat “‘Round Midnight,” isn’t it?”
“It’s one of my favorites.”
“Thanks for the drink. Care to join me?”
“Sure, for a minute.”
Still smiling she says “My name’s Judith,” and extends her hand. She has long slender fingers. Her hand is soft but looks like it’s done some work in it’s day. There’s a small round scar just above her little finger. Her nails are short and expertly painted the color of Mexican tile.
He turns to her and says, “Would you like to share an order of escargot?”
“I’d love to.” Her lips are red and shiny. Her teeth are white and even. He asks her if she minds if he smokes. “No, not at all, I used to smoke and I’ll enjoy yours vicariously. It’s one of the reasons I still come here. Most places are so sanitized these days. Lord I love Larry Horton for keeping his bar properly smoke-filled.” Again the almost southern accent.
“You know the owner?”
“It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody else and their business. So, since I don’t recognize you, you must be new in town or passing through. There are few strangers at this restaurant, since it’s small and far off the interstate. How did you find our little treasure?”
“I spent the day at Dillard’s today and asked the manager where to eat. She recommended Horton’s, so here I am. Sorry I’m so rude. My name is Martin. Martin Laterite”
“How very French.”
“The name, yes. I’m named after a great-grandfather.” He waves the bartender back and asks for the escargot. It will take about fifteen or twenty minutes.
“I noticed that you’re wearing a wedding ring. I find that so touchingly sweet in a man. Were you shopping for your wife?”
“No, I was selling. It’s what I do for a living. I sell women’s designer sportswear.”
“God! What a hellish job for a man.”
“Most women think it would be a great job.”
“Well, unlike most women, I hate stores and shopping. Did you like Lilly?”
“Lilith Jacobson? The store manager?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Yeah, I do. She’s a strait shooter. I like her directness. And I’m grateful to her that I’m not eating at Howard Johnson’s or the golden arches.”
“I play bridge with her once a month. And she does my shopping. God bless her for that. She’s a terrific friend.”
“And a wonderful job she does if the outfit your wearing is her handiwork. It’s Ann Klein Couture and they don’t carry the couture line in-store. So you must be a very special customer.”
“Just a picky friend. Besides, I only buy a few pieces each year. It’s not that much more work to buy special things for me. She knows my wardrobe and only adds what’s missing. I’ll bet she’d be here with you if it weren’t for her husband's business party.”
“Why aren’t you at her party?”
“Because I’m here having a drink with you Martin.” she raises her glass and sips her drink.
the pianist starts playing “So What," and the bartender heads toward them with a plate of escargot. When they’re finished with their appetizer, the hostess comes over and tells him his table is ready whenever he is. He asks Judith to join him for dinner and to his surprise, she accepts. This scares him a little.
They are escorted by the hostess in her long black dress to a table by the only bank of windows in the crowded room. As the two women lead the way he watches them whispering to each other. They bump hips and he notices Judith’s ass. The bias cut of her silk-jersey skirt pulls slightly as she moves from foot to foot and her hips rock from side to side. Martin balls his dangling hand into a soft fist.
They don’t talk much during dinner, but he does find out that she’s married to a college professor who doesn’t have time to go out, so she goes out by herself. He notices she doesn’t wear a wedding ring and says, “Women who don’t wear wedding rings scare me.”
“They ought to scare you. You are married to a woman I presume. What’s she doing while you’re on the road?”
“Staying home with the kids, I hope.” When she laughs he notices her neck is creamy white. She eats with relish and makes slightly sexual noises with her first few spoons full of lobster bisque. It is a soft moaning noise deep in her throat. He wonder’s why she and her husband aren’t at Lilly’s party.
“Do You work?”
“You mean, do I work outside the home, honey? Yes I do. I’m the wife of a poor college professor, remember? I have to work so I can buy my Ann Klein Couture.” She throws back her head and laughs. Martin thinks about his penis.
After dinner he asks for the check and the waiter says the check has been taken care of.
He says, “No, I’ll get the check! Judith, I travel on an expense account. Please let me get the check.”
She says, “I have nothing to do with this. It’s probably Larry or the guys in the kitchen.”
“Who was it? I’d like to thank him if it was the owner. And I’d want to thank the kitchen anyway for a great meal.”
The waiter says. “I’ve been asked not to say. I’m sorry.”
Martin pulls a twenty out of his wallet and leaves it on the table. He says, “Judith, would you like to have a cognac in the bar and maybe some dessert?”
“Yes, thank you. I will join you for an after dinner drink.”
The waiter, still hovering, pulls her chair out just as Martin reaches for it.
When they head back into the bar, the pianist is playing “For All We Know.”
They order cognac and sip it warmed. The crowd in the bar is thinning. Soon the kitchen crew starts coming in through the restaurant. It’s almost eleven.
Before he gets a chance to invite her to his room, Judith stands up, nods to the two tall very young men and says to Martin, “My dates for the rest of the evening are off-duty and ready to escort me to my job.”
One of the two young men looks like Mic Jagger when he was twenty-something. The other looks like Jim Morrison alive. They hover a discreet distance from the drinking couple.
Judith leans over and whispers in Martin’s ear, “Our meal was comped by one of those two characters. They’re the chefs, and we’re going to the club I run for this rich boy who lives in Paducah. These guys want to go for the last strip show of the evening. They’d be very cross if I invited you. But I had a lovely evening with you Martin. Maybe next time you’re in town we can do it again.”