Xconnect




The Kenmore Conspiracy

Patrick Hernan


I SWORE her choice of names would not bother me, but it did and it has for two fitful years. Fifteen other newlywed couples pictured alongside shameless ads for crock pots and vacuum cleaners in our keepsake Sunday paper were identified as Mr. and Mrs., with deference to the male first name and surname. Ours was the only anti-traditional caption. It read Lacey N. Charlesworth and Martin W. Parrish, and I instantly thought it better suited for the Op-Ed page. Ours was a marriage that simply reeked of opinion.

Our grainy likenesses---she on the left in a garish off-the-rack dress and I in a tieless black Armani and Ray-Bans---only made matters worse. We were the scene's newest young somethings, and I wondered if the correct word was billboards: haughty human billboards with assembly-line degrees from the Highminded College of Political Correctness. "Honey," I imagined a new Pittsburgh husband snickering to a new Pittsburgh wife. "Get a load of these fruitcakes." I snapped out of it by reminding myself that it was her idea and, of course, that she was my One and Only.
Ever the accommodator, I folded the wedding section gently and scolded myself for being childish and insensitive. Names and apparel mean nothing, I told myself, and motioned Lacey toward our well-equipped kitchen. "Our first breakfast at home," I said lovingly. "Scrambled or fried?"
"Strained," she said.
"Strained?"
"Strained," she repeated, putting down women's health and picking up the wedding section. "Poached with no yolk." She sighed and finished in staccato. "Wheat, not white. Margarine, not butter. Starbucks, not Maxwell House." She said nothing about the caption and the photo. Her smile of satisfaction told me most of what I needed to know.

I had only one question. "Why Starbucks?"
"Biodegradable bags," she said incredulously, that "get-real" look on her slightly sunburned face.
"Of course," I said. "How silly of me." My voice was more sarcastic than I wanted it to be. Lacey just glared.

NOW I am the one who glares. Two years down and still no crock pot, no symbol of unity of purpose or name, no hope that my wife ever will stop snapping at people who mistakenly call her Mrs. Parrish, no hope at all. Lacey, whom I love but no longer like, is a young and confused "eco-feminist"---her term. She champions barnyard animals and refuses to eat them or cook them, which is not to say she's a vegetable maven at the shiny Kenmore Mom and Dad, beaming with pride and recounting thirty-five consecutive years of happy-homefront meals, had delivered from Sears. I can't bare to tell them that ours is not a joyous kitchen, that my wife squeals "Ooh! Gag me!" when I serve myself meat or poultry, and that she spends a fair amount of time defiling hunters and sportsmen and demanding reparations for black people, whom she calls African Americans even when they skate for France or bobsled for Jamaica.

Lacey increasingly has become a specialist at boarding ships that never should set sail, but I keep most of our marital angst to myself. This is learned behavior: Failure earns me the death scowl from Mom, a black-eyed fate normally reserved for street beggars and married people who do their clothes at the Laundromat.
My life with Lacey has earned me three death scowls. The first came when I uttered the words "Justice of the Peace" to Mom, who wrongly assumed pregnancy. The second came when Lacey wore that sin-confirming mauve dress and no hose to our Godless ceremony at the city-county building. The third, I'm sure, was cast outside of my presence---most likely on the hot and sticky July morning our wedding story ran in the Sunday paper.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" Mom must have cried. "Did they have to publish that thing?"
Dad probably pretended to shrug it off. "It'll all work out," he must have lied to comfort Mom, "in time." Certain that it would not, he probably plowed down to Honest Ernie's at Maytide and Route 51, where he chilled out on four Iron City drafts and waited for Mom's Sunday dinner call, all the while huddling with the Master Pourer of Flat Beer and dispenser of flatter barroom fibs.
"It'll all work out," Ernie must have lied to comfort Dad, "in time."
My parents, clueless but virtuous in that Depression-era way, are famous for soliciting Ernie's counsel and doing tasks no one else wants to do. I know this because I've inherited their plague---the dreaded Parrish-Cunningham Accommodation Gene. It's the one that keeps arthritic Mom painfully in charge of Ernie's zoo-like Friday Fish Fry and keeps Dad---senior to all souls on daylight shift except drunken Barney Pressman---toiling on midnights at the W.P. Emanuel Fruit Company loading dock, down at the Pittsburgh Produce Yard.
And it's also the one that prevented me from telling Lacey that her irrational behavior---like sending fifty bucks to the International Leapism Fund, which claims in colorful junk mail that discrimination against people born on February 29th is pandemic---was dooming our marriage.

THIS PATTERN started just hours after our wedding, as we passed through the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, on our way to the Colony IV Motel in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Lacey, barely dressed, was driving. "No more work for 'Playboy'," she blurted, as though a moral imperative had become clear the precise moment the car radio lost its signal in the sepia tunnel. "They promote misogyny."
"Not to worry," I joked. "I don't need 'Playboy'; I'm married to Buns of Steel herself." I switched off the staticky radio and let my hand drift over to Lacey's thigh. She was wearing cutoffs. "Wanna fool around?"
"Don't cheapen me," she replied, a surprisingly harsh quality in her usually pleasant voice. Then she softened it. "I can't be married to a misogynist, okay?"
"Okay," I said. "What's a misogynist?"
"A man who gets a woman in a dark tunnel and keeps her incommunicado," she said, putting my hand back where it belonged. "Look it up."
I switched the radio back on. If Lacey wanted static, Lacey would get static. I decided not to tell her that I'd used a certificate of deposit bought with Playboy cash to pay for her engagement ring. Whatever it takes, I told myself, and accepted the ban without a fuss.
This decision to censor myself, made in the name of love, proved as distasteful as a spoonful of Lacey's tofu chili---particularly after I looked up the word misogynist. I'm not one, and neither is Hugh Hefner. Playboy saved me from life in the slush pile eight years ago, when it published a lightly sexual short story I submitted in a coffee-stained Manila envelope with no return postage. Life became easier with a Playboy clip and a check for three-thousand dollars. This is why I know, despite Lacey's rantings, that the magazine genuinely helps people---even people who do not take off their clothes for a living. I'm now able to sell fiction and articles to some of the top magazines in the world. Not bad for a Pittsburgh boy who wershes (washes) dishes and clothes and shops at Giant Iggle (Eagle) supermarket.
I work at home, four hours a day, so I do not mind the shopping. Nor do I mind the cleaning. I'd do about anything for Lacey, who works seventy hours a week and has a twenty-two mile commute one way.
She, as Irving Feldman wrote in "The Salon of Famous Babies," is a "thousand vitalities ablaze each instant"---but she coldly dismisses my need to be warmed by her touch. This hurts, and the hurt filters through my brain slowly, like pebbles on a slushy pond. I feel it most deeply when she refuses to hold hands in the Mall or let me peck her on the cheek in front of co-workers.
"I'm a woman," she says indignantly, "not a trophy."
My standard response is that men, dolts though many may be, still need affirmation. I say this with great sensitivity, but Lacey scoffs like a radical-feminist lawyer on a talk show. She is suspicious and spiteful of all things male, and this, in my mind, gives responsible feminism a black eye. She argues time and again that all sex is rape and that there is such a thing as a male lesbian. The claims, of course, are outrageous, but that doesn't stop her from making them. She argues ostensibly to me, but I sense she speaks to an audience I cannot see. Perhaps it's a past audience.
"Your need," she whines, "is biology masquerading as love, the genetic equivalent of a tomcat marking its territory through carefully disguised nudges and tactfully deposited scents." Her message is clear: The Great Hunt is over, Mr. Lion. Nuzzle me no longer.
With these hurtful words she reduces women to helpless prey and men to stalkers and chewers of carcasses. I do not know where she gets her ideas. I've been good to her. I affirm her life and career. None of this seems to matter.

LACEY IS a Pittsburgh girl. Like me, she is thirty-one years old. She is five-seven, trim, and has deep blue eyes and short blonde hair that plops into perfect position after being blow-dried for thirty seconds. She has a toothy and infectious smile, a real Pepsodent Girl in the spring, when the noon sun reddens her skin and provides excellent contrast for the white of her teeth. She manages the Airport Marriott in Moon Township, having earned the top job less than three years after her graduation from the Blazer School of Hospitality Management at Portend College, Ithaca, New York.

My wife---and it feels a tad awkward to call her that considering where I've been hanging my hat lately---is a closer. She gets things done quickly and under budget, which is why Marriott pays her $82,777 a year, flies her in to schmooze with the corporate brass in Washington, and allows her to try new things---like living outside of the hotel. She earned that privilege by sticking it to the Pittsburgh Hilton, after persuading Major League Baseball that its out-of-town millionaires would be less apt to get charged with headline-grabbing crimes if they avoided misogynistic downtown night spots and slept in the suburbs.
Marriott, thanks to my wife, now has the football and hockey business, too. Starry-eyed fans hang out in the airy lobby to beg for autographs, suburban female groupies wear sexy clothes and scurry by giggling, and the pulsating lounge fills with businessmen hoping the good times will rub off on them. Lacey, ahead of the curve, changed the name of the bar from "Happy Landings" to "Touch a Star," and the hotel's seven-day occupancy rate is ninety percent---up twenty points in less than a year.
One other thing that's up is my blood pressure. After kicking in every day for two years, the Parrish-Cunningham Accommodation Gene is failing miserably. This is why I'm divorcing my wife and planning to spend even more time with a cocktail waitress who calls herself Honeybuns.

HONEYBUNS PLAYED no role in the decision. Over secret drinks in the deliberately darkened back room at IAF (It's Always Friday), I told Bobby Cravitz, my friend, agent and lawyer, that I had left Lacey. He contemplated the news, picked lint off his too-warm-for-the-weather cardigan, called me an asshole, complained that the joint stunk like pheromones and rancid blue cheese, and said that she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

"That's the trouble," I said. "She's not a girl; she's a woman. Freakin Eco-Woman. A man always wants to marry a girl. No man marries his womanfriend. He marries his girlfriend."
Bobby frowned. He had married his girlfriend and had turned cryptically cold-blooded since the divorce three years ago. He took a long pull from his Budweiser, ordered warm, and sloshed it around in his nicotine-stained mouth. "Rain piss," he observed, and I couldn't tell if he was talking about his beer or my theory. The answer came after another long pull. "Girl, woman, whatever," he said. "Don't get technical on me."
"Have to," I replied. "She's as technical as the Space Shuttle."
Bobby said, "Is there a problem, Houston?" He said this with monumental insincerity, my cue that he would listen after the requisite comic formalities were out of the way. Bobby is a good listener. He listened during the dark days, when the Free Shopper had nothing to do with me. And he listens to me now. Publishers pay me a dollar a word, and Bobby banks ten cents.
"Look," I said, fumbling for words that might force him into premature seriousness. "She's not going to change. She's even making noise about buying an electric car."
He was unmoved. "How does that make you feel?" he asked softly, sympathetically, a devilish smile creasing his lawyerly countenance. He did this, I'm sure, because that particular phrase makes him want to throw up.
Getting nowhere, I decided to switch to the lawnmower story. It was Bobby's favorite, because it required his participation and gave him a chance to be wicked and funny, two things he loved to be at the same time. He'd play his role, I hoped, and then we'd get down to the business at hand.
I said, "She actually did it, you know."
"Did what?" he asked dumbly.
"Made me buy one of those smog-saving electric mowers and asked me how it made me feel when it fried the whole freakin circuit panel."
"Well," Bobby said. "How did it make you feel?"
"Like a child-abuse survivor with a license to commit crimes," I bleated. "The more expletives I used, the more Lacey said she understood."
Bobby's laugh rumbled across the smoky room. People from half a dozen tables, at least three of which, I suspected, were comprised of lecherous bosses and twentysomething female administrative assistants involved in or contemplating adulterous affairs, trained their eyes on us. Not remotely embarrassed, Bobby said "Sorry" to no one in particular. "As you were." And then, whispering, he asked me what happened when I took the lawnmower back.
"The sales clerk," I whispered, more cheerily than I felt, "said he 'understood' my anger, and that it would be 'pleasant' if I'd be less 'reactionary' to his inability to honor the smog-saver's 'limited' warranty which---'sadly, terribly, unjustifiably'---did not cover power surges and the damage they do to circuit panels and personal computers."
"In other words," Bobby snickered, "you got no cash; you got compassion. Oppressive compassion. The tree-hugging idiot who sold you an electric lawnmower 'understood' your pain. He was a veritable prince of understanding, and urged you to be the same. But his ability to understand, to truly understand was limited by an intractable evil---in this case, a warranty."
"Precisely!" I said dramatically. "Textbook touchy-feely. A card-carrying advocate of the Therapeutic State."
"Like Lacey," Bobby said severely, jaw set, brown eyes fixed, cigarette sending out poisonous smoke signals. "The differences, in a word, are irreconcilable."
"Where shall I begin?"
"Please," he pleaded. "Not at the beginning. I'm Sunday newspapered-out. Give me the abridged version---since last week." Thumbs snapping, he summoned a buxom waitress wearing tight green shorts, black heels and a red halter top. "Sweetpea," he said. "Give me a warm Bud, and give Shirley Temple, here, a tomato juice. He grinned cheesily. "No celery stirrer," he instructed. "Shirley doesn't like green vegetables."
The waitress was charmed. "Does Shirley like carrots?" she asked me, smiling. "And the name's not Sweetpea," she told Bobby. "It's Honeybuns. Honeybuns A. Harrison, otherwise known as Jennifer." She winked lewdly at both of us.
I rolled my eyes. "Shirley likes carrots."
"Then Shirley gets what Shirley wants," Honeybuns said. "But too many vegetables make Shirley a dull boy." She retreated, tittering.
"Nice girl," Bobby said. "Probably eats red meat when she's not studying for her General Equivalency Diploma."
"At this moment," I said, "I'd consider running away with her. Carnivorous cocktail waitresses are suddenly very appealing."
"So are herbivorous hotel executives with money in the bank," Bobby said. He said this to be a dutiful friend. Like me, Bobby is Catholic. Catholics are supposed to tell other Catholics to stay in bad marriages and bring forth lots of children.
I said, "I have my own money."
"Maybe you should buy Honeybuns a drink with it."
"Maybe I will," I said. "My own wife refuses to wear her wedding ring."
Bobby shook his head slowly. He blew smoke out his nostrils. "That's new," he said, "since the last time you summoned me to one of your dives. What's the rationale?"
"Not sure," I said. "But I think she did some calculations and determined that her engagement ring must have come from 'Playboy' money. It's my comeuppance. She doesn't want me to know she knows, so she's covering it up by saying she can't be bought or sold for trinkets."
"Bright girl," Bobby said. "Clearly no Manhattan Indian."
"No Manhattan Native American," I corrected. I swallowed hard. "Look, Bobby. I need to share some things. Some private things."
"The locker room is always open."
I walked right in. "She's going nuts," I announced, and I was only half-kidding. "Last Tuesday, I'm getting ready for my evening constitutional, so I start looking for my 'Reader's Digest.' It's not in the bathroom, so I look in the bedroom. It's not in the bedroom, so I go down to the basement to pick out an old one."
"Any particular month?"
"Give me a break," I groaned. I took a deep breath. "This hurts, and I'm serious. She's sick, I mean sick. I get down to the basement, find the box, and my 'Reader's Digests' are all cut up. Dozens of them."
Bobby gave me a rapt look. He put his head over the table and peeked left and right, as though I were about to leak a government secret. Engrossed, he said, "She cut up your 'Reader's Digests?'"
"Yep. The covers and ads and recipes."
"That's ... different," he said, searching for a word. He considered the ramifications, and I could tell he was having trouble framing the next question. "Any chance she's going to cook you something---maybe with meat and cheese and Miracle Whip?" he finally asked.
Never could I be so lucky as to eat greasy cheeseburgers with this woman. "Not a chance," I said. "She's going to expose what her kooky friends call the 'Monthly Conspiracy.' It pissed me off so much I screamed at her. I mean, I unloaded two years of shit. Haven't been back since." My voice trailed off. Blood rushed to my face. I wanted to think about big things but only could think about small things. Bobby was right: The place did stink like pheromones and rancid blue cheese.
Bobby hunkered down in his seat, eyes red from smoke, neck tightening, imploring me silently to answer a question he had not yet asked. He was a good friend. He'd kept his loathing of Lacey's passive-aggressive ways mostly to himself. Only occasionally had he said something snide, but the remarks had been masked, buried in humor, throw-away lines. A cigarette flamed out in a red and green ashtray. He lit another and took a long pull from his beer. He finally said, "What conspiracy is Reader's Digest involved in?"
I looked him in the eye and practically shouted the marriage-busting last straw. "To chain women to a kitchenful of Kenmores!"
He threw his hands in the air. "You have got," he said slowly, "to be fucking kidding me."
I told him I was not and took a moment to compose myself. I could see Honeybuns through the six-thirty haze. She was pretending to watch the lead story on the NBC Nightly News. A man wearing a black tie, ruffled white shirt but no jacket was pouring the drinks. The carrot still had a leafy green top attached. Probably loaded with MSG, I thought, a vestige of life with Lacey.
"The drinks are on me, " Bobby said. "My advice is to switch to Bloody Marys."
"I'll take two," I said, "with carrots."

BOBBY DASHED across the wood-plank floor toward the bar. A few sets of eyes followed him, trying to determine, I sensed, if he was capable of dropping a dime and ruining their illicit fun. "As you were," he said. This time everybody laughed. My stomach tightened.

He was back almost instantly. "Mission accomplished," he reported. "Honeybuns'll handle it."
"Do you do windows?" I asked, looking for a way to hide my anxiety.
"Windows, drapes, curtains, floors, shithouses," he said. "That's what divorce is. Get used to it."
"Already am," I said ruefully. "You forgot laundry."
"Divorced men don't do laundry," he said. "They send it out and buy new socks."
Odd but frequently true, I thought. I wondered if Bobby bought new socks. Would I? It occurred to me that we had never really discussed the specifics of his divorce. But the thought was silly. How could we? How does a man talk about nuances when his wife deserted him for a woman she met in the Tuesday night bowling league? Even the newspaper reported generalities.
Honeybuns showed up with the drinks. "I'll start a tab," she said. "Nice carrots, eh?"
I nodded in the affirmative. "S and P?"
"Standard and Poors?" Honeybuns said. The recital of a famous financial firm seemed an odd response for a cocktail waitress.
Bobby still thought she was a loser. "Negative," he said. "Salt and pepper."
"I know," Honeybuns said. "Just kidding." She giggled apologetically and handed me a set of Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus shakers. "Christmas in July," she explained. "An annual event."
"That's original," Bobby said sarcastically. "Do you do the Fourth of July at Christmas?"
"Couldn't say," Honeybuns said. "I know we do Halloween in March. That's when I started working here."
Witty Honeybuns, I deduced, was no GED candidate. "Where'd you work before?" I asked. My eyes widened when she answered.
"'Pittsburgh Business Times,'" she said, then speechified. "I still work there. I'm schlepping booze at night to save money. I'm quitting the paper next year and going full-time freelance. What I really want is to write fiction. Short stories and novels."
Bobby looked at me and I looked at him; this, in essence, was a female version of my story. We both smiled. "Shirley, here, does a little writing," he said.
"Do tell," Honeybuns said, her smugness born of many by-lines. She got a here-we-go-again look on her face; bars are filled with drunks who do a little writing. "Does anybody write back?" she asked.
"Almost never," I said. "But I'm still hoping. Maybe you can give me some tips."
"Tips," she said, "are what you give me for wearing short shorts and schlepping your booze." She grinned, and turned toward another table.
"Honeybuns!" Bobby called out loudly. "Merry Christmas!" No one looked at our table this time; he'd been judged a nonthreat. Honeybuns glided away. "Nice girl," Bobby whispered. He stared at her butt and took back his GED remark.
We toasted Merry Christmas, and the mood turned heavy again. Divorce is a black dog that sits on your shoulder and gnaws. "I would've settled for a hyphen," I said absently.
Bobby was confused. "Did I miss something?"
"A hyphen," I said. "I wanted a hyphen for Christmas last year, and she wouldn't give me one. Remember?" I took a peppery swig from my Bloody Mary. The incongruous carrot bumped me on the nose.
Bobby shrugged. "I seem to remember," he said, "that I advised you not to grovel."
"What you said," I said, "was to let sleeping dogs lie."
"Which more or less means, 'Don't grovel.'"
"Why didn't you just say, 'Don't grovel?'"
"You were going to grovel no matter what I said," Bobby said. "I've heard that Sunday newspaper story a million times. It was only a matter---"
"Of time," I said, finishing his sentence and turning silent. I am human, I told myself, and humans grovel if they want something badly enough. I wanted my wife to be known as Lacey Charlesworth-Parrish. I wanted to see a hyphen in her name from the morning our wedding story ran in the Sunday paper. Seventeen months later I wanted it badly enough to grovel, enough to let her see that something I swore would not bother me had bothered me to no end.
"Earth to Marty," Bobby said. He blew a smoke ring and tried to get it to merge with a ring blown by a woman at a table ten feet away. I watched it billow and die.
"You were right," I finally said. "Groveling ain't good, especially in front of a woman who sends 'Reader's Digest' covers and ads and recipes to P.O. Box 1127, Chicago, Illinois, and isn't even trying to win a prize."
"She's a prize, all right," Bobby observed. It was the nastiest comment he'd ever made about Lacey; I did not rise in her defense. He blew another smoke ring that failed to merge. He finally said, "What's Chicago have to do with 'Reader's Digest'?"
This was the kicker, the one that symbolized the death of our marriage. "Lacey's eco-feminist pals are gathering what they call 'hate literature'---Can you believe it? Hate literature---and are going to burn it live on CNN," I blared. "I do not pretend to understand the point they are trying to make. What I understand is that my wife is a lunatic. She has a college degree, makes eighty grand a year, and allows people who have corrupted a noble pursuit to convince her that 'Reader's Digest' is the root of all evil." I caught my breath, and asked a series of imponderables: "Why is opposition to all discrimination not a firm enough conviction? And what is so 'pathetically male' about having a craving for roast beef or meatloaf or pepperoni pizza with sausage and bacon and ham? Are women who eat meat considered second-class feminists or traitors? Or are they granted special dispensation simply because they're women?"
Bobby was calm. "Asshole kneejerks," he said. "It won't hurt as much if you think of them as the entertainment wing of the radical fringe." He blew a smoke ring that merged successfully with the woman's. "Closest I've been to a girl in three years." He then delivered some Catholic skepticism. "What if she changes her mind about the hyphen?"
"Fuck the hyphen," I said. "I thought I wanted it, but I don't. Not really. What I want is a woman who eats meat and collects recipes for cooking, not protesting. Basically, I want a woman who knows herself well enough to affirm me---not that I need all that much affirmation. Know what I mean?"
"Yeah," he said. "I married a lesbian. Remember?"
"Yeah," I said. "Wanna get wasted?"
"Do baboons shit in the rain forest?"
"Naturally."
"Cheers," he said. "I'll draw up the papers when you give me the word."
"The word," I said, "has been given. That's why we're here."
"Surely, you don't want them---"
"Tomorrow," I instructed. "And don't call me Shirley."
"Shirley gets what Shirley wants," he said.

BOBBY EXCUSED himself to "urinate," and I smiled an ironic smile. I remembered that he used to say "drain the lizard," but that had ended about a year ago, the day Lacey growled at him. She's not always wrong, I told myself, but I wished she were softer when right.

Her reprimand of Bobby was one for the books. Happy Hour beer on his breath, he stopped over to drop off a contract. His first mistake was to greet Lacey with a kiss; she detests such effrontery. His second mistake, three seconds later, was to announce he had to drain the lizard.
This set off a nuclear meltdown. "You fucking pig!" she wailed. "Don't announce; just do, and don't even think about touching me again." She wiped the remnants of Bobby's kiss from her forehead. "Be careful," she warned, "not to get the fucking thing caught in the door."
Bobby retreated in silence.
"Lighten up," I whispered. "He's my best friend, and he's bringing us a check for seventy-five hundred bucks."
"I suppose money gives him the right to slobber all over me," she said. "I suppose it gives him the right to act like a jerk."
"No," I said. "But boys will be boys. He was trying to be funny."
Lacey bristled. "At work," she proclaimed, "I'd fire anybody who touched me."
"I know," I said. "I touched you at work."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
I stared a dagger at her. "It means," I said, "that you are a woman, not a trophy, and that I am a prisoner of my own fucking biology."
"Fuck it," she sulked. "You take everything so personally." She ducked into the study, standard practice when confronted with the illogic of her own hurtful words. I could hear her mumbling something about Bobby Fucking Cravitz. Lacey habitually splits nouns that offend her.
Honeybuns rattled me from my daze. "Mr. Expensive Cardigan in July ordered Shirley one of these," she said, "on his way to water the snake." She chuckled and set down a shot of peach schnapps.
"His name is Bobby Cravitz," I said. "And do you always use such colorful expressions?"
"No," she said. "Sometimes I just say piss." She grinned. "Is he the Bobby Cravitz?"
"Yep." Bobby was in the papers all the time.
"That must make you somebody," Honeybuns said.
"Nope," I said. "Just plain Marty. There's a million of us."
"Well, Marty-Shirley. Nice to meet you." She shook my hand.
"Nice to meet you, Jennifer."
"Ooh!" she said. "I'm impressed. You even remembered my name."
I admitted a foible. "To tell you the truth," I said, "we've been calling you Honeybuns."
"Good," she said, smiling. "I'll expect a big tip." She dismissed herself, and Bobby reappeared. He instantly inserted a cigarette and drank my peach schnapps.
"Indian giver."
"Native American giver," he corrected.

WE STAYED at IAF until eleven. I quit after one tomato juice and four Bloody Marys. Bobby had eight beers and two shots. He ran out of cigarettes but refused to put sixteen quarters in the vending machine. "Marty," he said, "it's more cost-effective to bum them." Jennifer, now dressed in loose-fitting blue jeans, a canary-yellow tennis shirt and white deck shoes, came over with the check. It came to exactly forty dollars. Bobby handed her a Diner's Club.

"Sorry," she said. "We don't take these---not even for famous lawyers. MasterCard. Visa. Discover. American Express. Cash."
Bobby thumbed through his wallet. "I'm not famous," he said. "My ex-wife is famous, and I had a fool for a client. Perhaps you read about it; it was in all the papers." He grinned and pulled out a wad of cash, maybe five-hundred dollars, and resumed the search for a usable credit card. "Honeybuns," he said. "Lend me a smoke and call me a cab."
"I don't smoke," she said. "And you're a cab. Forty bucks." She looked at me and smiled an impatient smile. Like Lacey, her teeth were perfect. She was pretty. Her skin was olive and her eyes were green and big, spaced widely apart. Her hair was middle-length brown. I guessed her to be about twenty-eight, probably on her second post-college apartment, perhaps looking for a third in which she'd complete the Great American Novel and cringe and lose hope every time a publisher sent it back with a form rejection.
I wondered if she was late for a very important date, and the words "lucky guy" filtered through my mind. Based on nothing more than a feeling, my guess was that she had no committed relationship but probably hoped one day to find an artist of some type to settle down with. She exuded a smart aleck's confidence, but I suspected she was much more than a cut-up. She had, after all, managed to get two men in a tavern to discuss attributes beyond how she filled out her flimsy uniform, and sometimes that's no mean feat.
No, this woman was no empty shell. She had a clearly stated professional goal, and so it seemed likely she'd also have a clearly stated personal goal. I spent a moment wondering what it might be. Love? Marriage? Family? Children? All of the above? And then I wondered if Jennifer could pass the cheeseburger test? Did she send money to the Save The Cattle Fund? Would I be able to order anything on the menu without being told I was a cretin?
My mind was racing with possibilities, and I told myself to slow down. She's probably meeting someone after work, I thought. He's probably funnier than I am. He probably works at the City Desk down at the Post-Gazette, and he probably has four or five unpublished novels and probably was the last reporter to interview Elvis.
All of this thinking took place in the fifteen seconds in which Bobby thumbed through his wallet, a snippet of time that brought on an awkward silence someone needed to fill. "Forget it," I found myself saying to Bobby. "It's on me." I handed Jennifer an American Express Gold. "Put on ten for you."
"Thanks, Marty-Shirley," she said. "I was just kidding about the cab, you know. There's twenty of them out front. It's automatic." She dismissed herself, and glided toward the credit-card machine.
"Can you believe it?" Bobby said. "Three bucks a beer and the joint smells like sex and blue cheese." He winked at me. "Nice girl, though."
Yeah, I thought. Probably eats red meat. Women like Lacey, I decided, really mess with your brain.
I walked Bobby to the door and he thanked me for the drinks and winked again. He smiled a wicked smile and walked a lawyerly gait---not always the best indication of sobriety. The best indication is what people say, and I'd never heard him say so much about his famous ex-wife---at least not in public.
He shook my hand and did not let go. "I'll have the papers late tomorrow," he promised. "If you're sure."
"I'm sure," I said, squeezing his hand harder. "But I still love her. I still love Lacey N. Charlesworth." He nodded sympathetically, let go of my hand and crawled into a green taxi. I could see him asking the cabbie for a smoke.
I went back in to sign the receipt and was puzzled when Jennifer handed it to me; it was still for forty dollars even. "Hey," I said. "No tip?"
She scanned me top to bottom; the sudden assessment seemed odd. I wondered if something was wrong with the credit card---like maybe Lacey had it shut off. But how could she? It was all mine.
A sly smile crept across Jennifer's face. "Marty-Shirley does a little writing, eh?"
"Just plain Marty," I said. "I've written a word or two."
"Well, Mr. Martin W. Parrish, Member since 1988, guess what I was doing in 1988?"
"Let me see," I said. "Junior High cheerleader?"
"No," she laughed. "Midnight shift at 7-Eleven, a boring summer job that allowed me to read and study every magazine imaginable. That's when I first saw you in 'Playboy', and since that time I've seen you just about everywhere and read the feature on you in Writer's Digest." She beamed like a schoolgirl. "I shouldn't be telling you this," she said softly, chin in her neck, eyes down then up, "but you're sort of my inspiration. Is it true you used to schlepp booze?"
I was touched. "True," I said. "Honest Ernie's. Maytide and Route 51. Flattest beer in Pittsburgh." I felt electric. A pretty girl was saying something nice about me. I paused to consider what, if anything, was happening. I hoped something was but did not want to seem too eager. I'm much shyer than I let on. "Ernie still posts my stuff on his bulletin board," I said hopefully. It seemed like something good to say.
"Get outta town," she said, green eyes widening. "Really?"
"Really," I said, thinking I had a decision to make. I swallowed hard. "Jennifer," I began again slowly. "Wanna grab a cheeseburger?"
She took a moment to think things through. "White Castle?" she said. "A whole bagful of grease burgers the size of silver dollars?"
"Where else?" I replied. "Used to go there all the time."



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Published in association with the University of Pennsylvania Writers House
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