A Touch of Class

by Mimi Carmen


Published in BuzzWords Magazine June 2000


I smelled trouble the minute he walked in. I was in Dockers and an old Calvin Klein shirt, talking to my secretary on the phone. She reminded me to be calm. I hung up to greet the man with his toothy smile, and diamond-earring flickering in his right earlobe. We shook hands, a little too long, his hands were clammy, and his rings nearly brought blood. He was Rick Mancini, my new boss at Peter’s back Yard Restaurant, and he let me know it from the way his eyes skimmed over the things that made up my office; too fast, without making any remarks: the barbecue pit, the beach umbrellas, guitars weren't making an impression. Or not a good one, I knew that. I faced his maroon jacket, and I think a toupee and listened.

I would be useful in the new set up, he said. He sketched his ideas for the wedding menu on a white tablecloth.

“Listen, Steve, I got a message and we ain’t got a lot of time. Clams on the half-shell, mango soup, quail under glass, CLASS.” Class rang out and hit the wall.

“Quail? Why quail?”

“You got to have class, my friend.”

Class. From somewhere I could hear my mother telling me you either had it or you didn’t. And nobody could walk you through it.

“Turkey, maybe duck?”

“Turkey! Fuckin’ Donald! “ He spat into his napkin. “Grandmother talk, no balls.”

“I snapped my briefcase shut with its menu of barbecued turkey, sweet corn, potato salad.

“Quail. Listen to the way the word ripples on your tongue, Hey, what’s the matter with you?”

I could see my plan for a simple menu going down the sewer. I could see all my ideas of launching new couples into a complex world being replaced with dollar signs. I could see the old way of guitars and silk scarves and discussions about the world on the way out like a dead tree that has to go.

So I agreed recklessly over my third martini, with shining menus, pictures of block-long restaurants with huge red awnings and doormen, in cities in the United States, Canada, London, Paris. I have a confession to make. I’m a simple man but under some conditions, I can be had. I looked at him cross-eyed, smashed my hand against his, a little nuts, and left.

Quails. I remember one time seeing a picture in a liquor ad of a bird that looked like a pheasant. That night in the rec room, I pouted with a Vodka and water and waited for Cheena . The bird was covered with orchid, pink, and tan feathers. When it flew out the window, I was sorry to see it leave. I woke up the next morning, alone, still in the rec room, with the beady eyes of the quail in the ad still staring at me.

Now I had other things on my mind. I was standing in line at the pharmacy, waiting to check out after picking up aspirin. I talked to my secretary on my cell phone.

“I’ll be away for awhile, take care of things, sweetheart. Say hello to mom.” I think my secretary is in love with me. I kid around with her, ask about her dog and her mother. I clicked off the phone.

I said to the man behind me, “Quails. Do you know anything about quails?”

“Snails?”

“Quails,” I shouted. “Quail under glass.”

I walked to the Red Apple convenience store across the street from Pudgie's Pizza. I drank a coffee from a Styrofoam cup, read Anne Landers. I gave the guy tending the store a five-dollar tip.

“You O.K?”

I nodded. I must have looked crazy. Even I was surprised.

At Pudgie's I stood while Nick pulled a pizza from a drawer.

“I took a walk. I didn’t go to work. I’m going to ask my ex-wife if I can have my son live with me.”

Nick sliced the pizza, kept his eyes averted. I knew I was making him nervous, so I sat down at the counter. I ordered a glass of milk. I dropped a piece of apple pie on my lap and scooped it up, concentrating on thoughts of the rest of the day. I was heading for Otego to pick up Josh. Cheena, my ex-wife kept the house, but I still had my old key. Keith, her husband, resented me. He was barely polite and hovered over us when I played with Josh. Last time I visited I bought books, baseball bats, Nintendo, a watch, video games, a fish named Foam, in an attempt to get inside his six-year old mind, change his eyes lashing out his hostility, or resigned acceptance. When I gave him his presents, he strained and croaked out a polite little thank you. I had meant to pick up my car and get on the road, the weather felt snow. Instead I wandered around the city. I thought of ways to say it with just the right note. I thought it could work out this way, but I was losing my son. I walked to calm myself before approaching Cheena again. A light snow started, I walked through the mist, forgot to wait for the stop-sign to say go, heard the horn blast, passed a new French restaurant, a cigar store. I looked in department store windows. In one the young girl dressing a mannequin looked out. I looked at her, caught her attention and after a minute I smiled. She smiled back. Her eyes were far apart, wide brown eyes. She untied the robe of one of the mannequins; underneath a chalk-white body undressed with jutting pelvis, no arms, eyes staring vacantly.

When I caught the girl’s attention, a thought, a flash came to me of Cheena, a night I came home angry from her rejection the night before. She sat bare-feet on the floor, wriggling grape-lit toe-nails into the rug with enjoyment, giggling, dark hair tangled, hanging loose over her shoulders, dressed in a white satin robe from Victoria’s Secrets. She put down a glass of milk when I came in. She stepped leisurely, bypassed the coffee table, put her hand on the belt of her robe, untied it and underneath her naked body, soft, pliable, white, smell of apples. I put my head on her stomach for a moment. The light on the glass on the top of the coffee-table caught both of our reflections, dancing, twirling on the ceiling. It was as though I was enclosed in glass. I closed her robe and went to the kitchen. She lounged in the doorway. My memory was of foul balls and no minutes to play.

The girl in the window brought out a prop. She put a leash in the mannequin’s hand before she disappeared. At the end of the leash the slender black and white Russian wolfhound stared out the window. His eyes were long and sensitive considering he was sighting and pointing to birds to be shot.

This thought drew me back to my immediate problems. I decided the girl in the window wasn’t coming back. Anyway it was time to go to my apartment and get the car. I was still thinking of the dog in the window when I had the uneasy feeling a live dog was tailing me. I looked around at the dog, dirty-brown, shaggy half sheep-dog, eyes the color of gold. I turned around and he stopped. We exchanged glances. I searched his neck for a tag without any luck. He tagged along, hung-down, aimless. I brushed some of the snow off his back and he went around in circles, wagged his tail and nuzzled my hand. Then I told him to go home. I saw a look of disappointment, but he accepted it. His eyes went dim in the second my eyes said no. He waited a few minutes. Then he put his tail down and disappeared in the snow, the unwanted. It seemed like an omen.

I picked up the car, a new book on dinosaurs, and a book on birds. 

Eight a.m. Otego, heavy snow. At the house I used my key. The door opened easily. I took off my boots first. The house used to belong to Cheena’s mother. Cheena and I kept the verandah with vines, the faded carpeting, dull wall paper, but Keith protested, Cheena told me when she first gave me my key, so now the walls were painted bright red, white chair-rails, thick carpeting just off-white.

Cheena’s mother’s picture sat on the mantle. I looked at the picture and thought of her angel, the pin she always tacked on at the last minute. It was supposed to bring a miracle. If she ever died (but the angel was her safeguard against death), she’d come back alive. One time she went for a walk and never came back, so of course, everyone wondered if she was still around because of the angel. I wondered if I carried an angel, if I died and came back, would I be a dog, of if I just died dead and that was the end of the line, what about Josh? I had to have Josh, and I wanted him now.

I sat at the kitchen table. The sun came in weak, shining through the snow piled high on the window sills. I felt stuffy, closed in.

Keith came down the stairs. Cheena followed in black velvet tights and high-heels, blond, hair now a bleached yellow look.

Keith poured Cheena’s coffee. Cheena looked at me.

“I assumed you would use the key.”

“I had a dream last night,” Keith said. “Kept me awake all night. Now I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it wasn’t because I knew you’d be here.”

Cheena looked at Keith and me through the smoke of her cigarette. “Oh, cut it out, Keith.”

“I’m trying to deal with all of your problems, Cheena.” Keith said. “One of which is your unfortunate mouth.” He stamped out of the kitchen.

“I need to talk to you.” I said.

“I can’t. I have a hair appointment. Besides, I don’t feel like talking right now.”

Roz had a yellow rose pinned to her hair. She moved with the ease of a pretty woman who knew it. The first time I saw her she wore a cotton skirt that reached her ankles. Her only luggage was a basket. She had arrived in this country with the promise of a job which didn’t turn out. Cheena lured her to work for us as a housekeeper and as our housekeeper, she seemed more like part of the family.

Truth was I was glad to be walking along with Roz. By the path we were walking, a man was teaching a child to make snowballs. Hers fell apart in the air.

“I’m going to ask Cheena if I can take Josh.”

“She’ll never agree, Steve.”

“Good, then I’ll kidnap him.”

This isn’t the time. Not yet. He’s learning.”

“O.K. then you come with the package.”

“She’s not so bad, Steve. She has her own problems.”

“Oh, really? She never did much for you.”

Another kid made a snow ball. The girl had wandered away. “Abbey,” the man called. She picked up more snow, looked at it, packed it in one hand with the other.

“Well, I may get married.”

“Married? Who to?” The snow balls were flying and flying.

“Somebody. Nobody you know.”

“Come again? You’re dating?”

I walked faster.

“It’s normal to date first, isn't it?"

Josh had a problem sleeping. Now he was tired and snappy.

“Did you know, Josh, people on TV can see you.” I grinned.

“Yeah, right.” I knew the way he said, “Yeah, right,” he didn’t believe me.

“They can.”

“Then suppose you tell me what this means.” Josh held up his middle finger to the man’s face on the television. “See? The guy didn’t give me the finger back!”

When Roz gave him a bath earlier, I listened to them laughing in the bathroom behind the door. I heard the splash in the tub, heard him exclaim, “I’m too big for this now, Roz.” I pictured her pouring the water over me. I cursed under my breath.

Roz stood in the doorway holding Josh’s pajamas, preparing his bed.

“You’re not teasing Josh, are you Steve?”

“Nope.” I said.

“What?” Josh said, changing channels.

“Did you know Flipper is processed into tuna fish cans?”

“What does processed mean?”

“It means all chopped up into tiny bits.”

“Roz, is Flipper in the Tuna-Of-The-Sea can you bought yesterday?”

“No, of course not.”

Josh, on the floor, pointed a crayon-red finger straight at me. “You shit.”

“Josh, I have a present for you.”

“So? Where’s Mom?” Eight o’clock, and now nine. Cheena wasn’t home. Roz went from window to window. Josh trotted behind.

“Josh, did you ever hear of a quail?” I said.

“Grandma went away and never came back.”

I pulled out the bird-book. On the cover were a bird’s beak and a wing. Josh examined the photograph. He put his cheek against the cover.

“What if she’s dead?”

“Mom’s not dead, Josh.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Josh. I have to leave for a minute.”

I went to the bathroom and patted water on my face, dried it with a towel with Cheena’s initials. I went to the study and sat very still. We decorated the study with fresh pine at Christmas, strung glittering, tiny balls. Now Cheena’s mother was dead. Cheena and I were divorced and Cheena was married to Keith. The night I put my head on her chest, she pulled away and said, “Get a life.” Sweet Jesus. Who would suspect she wanted another man?

The first time I visited Otego after the divorce, after Cheena and Keith had married, Cheena insisted on giving me a tour of the house. Roz walked around the house with us, chattering brightly, pointing out new carpeting, new mirrors, the draperies, the leather sofa replacing the flowered chintz.

Roz came into the study, I sensed her hesitating in the dim light.

“You awake,” she whispered, “you O.K.?”

I was half-dreaming. A bird, wild- red, it’s wings extended like a moon stood poised on a hill.

“I’m still your friend.” She said.

She had said, “I’m your friend,” the day we toured the house, moving quietly, taking my arm. We had stood there together, the walls of the room like mountains, our words like birds flapping against them.

Outside the moon was bright, the snow had stopped now, untouched yet against the black night. In the open field a bird was taking off.

End