This would be their first dinner together, not exactly “a date,” Ben promised over the telephone when he called to ask her out. “But you never can tell.”
Marion accepted, although not too quickly. “Let me be sure ah haven’t a girl’s night out planned,” she said half joking, he hoped. She would give up the girls for him, wouldn’t she? “Kin ah have yer number and get rat back atya?” He was pleased when fifteen minutes later his cell phone rang. Her calendar was open.
They ordered from the menu and then their drinks arrived. Marion looked delighted as the waiter placed a full glass of red wine in front of her. “Why, thank you sir,” she said in over-polite solicitude. The waiter nodded in response, set Ben’s glass down, withdrew.
Ben sipped his scotch, placed the tumbler on the table cloth and said, “You know, I’m a sucker for a Southern accent. Where were you born, exactly?”
She was kittenish in her reply: “Atlanta. Which Northerners think is the deep south, but it’s just a shy mile from the north, y’know.” She pronounced it “nawth,” which he found both exotic and fascinating, but did not tell her that. He wanted to save it for when they were in bed, he confided to himself in anticipation of a post coital conversation involving her and a cigarette.
“Well, I think it’s cute. A soft Southern drawl. Where’d you go to school?” It surprised him to learn it was here in the City. “No kidding. Me too. Got my MBA at State, emphasis in marketing.”
Was that bragging, he thought, or was it subtle enough to sound like a fact of life he merely wanted to share with her? Got to be careful not to overplay his hand.
“You do have a nice car,” she said with what he took for sincerity. The Ford was left over from his failed marriage and spelled “family” in his mind.
“Too many miles on it,” he sipped his drink. “I intend to get a luxury car next time around.” Was he trying to impress her? “Not a Cadillac. Maybe a Lexus.”
She saluted this comment with her wine glass.
“Of course, I’ll have to refinance the house to do that, but what the hay. I have plenty of equity now that the divorce is final.”
This bit of information was pointedly meant to answer a question before she had a chance to ask. That settled the issue of his availability without making a fuss over it. “How about you? You seeing anyone?” He saw the segue even if she did not.
“Not exactly,” she said as she let her lips hover at the edge of the wine glass before tilting up the stem. “I’m certainly single, as they say.” She batted her eyes to reinforce the statement.
He did not know if they said that or not, all he wanted was to move further into intimate personal information and was about to ask if she had any pets when she beat him to it with, “Where’s your house?” She asked this casually, as if almost disinterested in the response. But he wanted to impress her.
“On Rockledge in Squirrel Hill.”
The exact address could wait. Fact was, Squirrel Hill had become trendy even if Marion did not recognize the street name. He wondered exactly how old she was, knew better than to ask outright. Let her volunteer that. He did ask how long she had been working in retail (he had met her behind a counter at Macy’s while shopping for a new set of sheets, confused by thread counts and with no idea whether or not he had a queen size or a full), but she demurred. Instead of stating the number of years she held up four fingers. By which he thought she meant four years and when he asked, she shook her head no.
“Four months.” She giggled. The wine could not have affected her so quickly, he thought. Just being playful which is a sign she likes me. The Grill and Drill was working, even if he had no clue where it was taking them. He reminded himself the evening was still young.
The food arrived and they ate not in silence, exactly, but neither were they conferees or intimates revealing innermost secrets. She picked at her fish sparingly, which he also recognized as a good sign: It meant she did not want him to think she was an over eater. He tried to go beyond small talk and she brightened whenever he broached a new topic for discussion.
He told her he liked spicy foods, that he could eat any chili with one exception. The homely habanera was the only hot pepper he avoided because, “The fire sticks to the inside of your mouth and nothing, I mean nothing washes it away.”
She asked if he had a favorite desert and he said pecan pie. And pecans, he liked pecans. And chocolate dipped pecans.
“As a matter of fact, anything pecan,” he said. “One day I ordered a five pound sack of ‘m roasted and salted over the Internet from some place in Louisiana called Priest Pecans. And they came right away. But you know what? They sold my name to musta been hundreds of mail order companies, to a mailing list and within a month I musta received a hundred damn catalogs on everything from fruitcake to lobster you could order overnight. Caught in Chesapeake Bay today, on your plate in California tomorrow. I think you got two for seventy-five dollars.”
He saw he had her attention so he decided to confide in her. Ben explained how assiduous his refusal to receive unsolicited catalogs or junk mail. His typical response to unwanted mail was to drop it right back in the corner post box with several comments written on the outside. First, he scratched out his name and address, then discolored the bar code at the bottom which was the real means of postal delivery. He learned to do that the hard way when pamphlets kept returning to him even though his name and address were illegible. Using a wide black felt tip pen, he wrote along the top in the white space on the mailing label in big block letters: The Three R’s — REFUSED RETURN REMOVE.