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A Man of Means - A Short Story

A Non-obvious Man

He walks briskly into the restaurant, out of the autumn night, and stops abruptly in front of the hostess station. The willowy blond hostess, on the phone, puts her call on hold when she sees him and smiles. “Welcome Mr. Gale.”

James Gale nods, acknowledging her, and removes his overcoat, which she takes, smiling as she hangs it on the hook behind her. She waves subtly and a tall brunette appears. “Welcome back, sir.” They knew he would be coming. It was Monday evening.

“Please take Mr. Gale to his table, thirty-three.” The blond hands a menu to the brunette who nods and smiles at the floor. “Of course. Follow me, sir.”

As they walk into the quiet room, James scans the place for familiar faces. He sees no one. Good. He doesn’t need conversation. Not tonight.

He sits heavily in his chair at the table for two, as the waitress swiftly removes the settings across from him and leaves him. He pushes the table forward slightly and shakes his wrist sharply to adjust his new watch, a gift from his brother. It’s a chunky Swiss-made watch, a change from his red leather-banded watch he’d worn for years. He wears it now because, well…expensive watches.

He opens the menu, more out of habit than interest; he always orders the same meal. On cue, the brunette returns at his table with his glass of red wine, which had been poured several minutes in advance of his arrival to allow it to breathe. She sets it down, looks at him for a heartbeat but he is oblivious, staring out the window across the empty dining room into the night, as if trying to see in the dark. He shivers and sips his wine.

He’d ended things with Anne today. He’d had such high hopes, uncommon for him, as he was a realist about women. About all things. When they’d met five months back by friends on a blind date, he’d liked her immediately. In fact, he had not been so interested in a woman for a long time: She was quick, bright, irreverent, funny. But in the end, it had devolved. She was the usual slushy mix of emotion and need.

He thought back to what he’d told her earlier that afternoon, his Speech: That while he had enjoyed and appreciated the time they’d had together, he didn’t think they would ever sync. She’d looked at him blankly. Synchronize, he’d explained.

Over the years, he’d grown somewhat tired of the Speech, but it was so effective, he kept on with it. The only variation was the woman’s response: One might cry, another would curse. One lady, an American woman, actually had stood up and walked away in silence. His Speech worked – the words were like flicking a light switch, clean and easy. Lights out. Nothing to see here. Move along.

He had the Speech down to two minutes, though there were always the usual pleasantries to go through beforehand. He found that once he’d given the Speech to a woman, he wanted to leave. But he would stay and listen for a few minutes as she rambled on, a messy slurry of regret and hope—he didn’t want to seem un-gentleman-ly. He would deftly change the topic, ending on a lighter note, a glance at his watch, noting that he had to get back to a meeting or a dinner…his life without her.

He looks up from his wine glass as an attractive couple walks by his table with their teenage children, led by the willowy brunette. The hostess steers the family past the fireplace and then veers left, seating them in front of the large window, somewhat blocking his view of the street and the lights, the park beyond. He watches as the family sits: There is some playful confusion over who gets to sit where and the son playfully jostles the father for the seat looking out the window. Shrugging his shoulders, the dad gives in and sits with a defeated smile between his wife and daughter. He watches this scene and imagines this happens at every time this family dines out.

He furrows his brow. Today with Anne, he’d veered from his script. He’s been puzzled by this since he left her. They’d met in a park near her work and sat down on a bench. She’d sat still as he spoke. She had not touched him. Usually they touched him, trying to hold on. But she listened attentively, looking at him, with her arm stretched along the back of the bench towards him. His arm mirrored hers. After “I don’t think we’ll ever sync,” he’d added, “Do you?” As if he was not certain. She’d stared at him for a minute, then said, without a hint of regret or rancour, “You know what I think.” Then she’d looked away and added that she understood why. After the pleasantries and reasons to leave, they’d stood up and said goodbye. She walked down the sidewalk towards the park exit and then turned back to look at him as he stood watching her. He recalls exactly this moment, the expression on her face. He couldn’t read it, which irked him, and he’d called out to her: “Don’t be a stranger!” She had turned away, passed through the gate and crossed the street.

He took a long drink of his wine and breathed in through his mouth for the flavour. He considered his method. He put women through a series of tests, events really, involving greater and greater access to his life. The women never knew they were being tested—He was meticulous on this, as it was critical to get a good read. He revealed himself and his life in layers. And he watched to what she reacted most strongly. Sometimes it was the money, sometimes the prestige. Once it had been one of his friends. Whatever it was, once he spotted it, he carefully exploited it until he could see the ugliness in the full light of day. Often, the women by that time thought they could control him, as along the way, he made a point of yielding to most things, to ensure they showed their true selves. But they were wrong and it was too late. And it would be time for the Speech.

Anne had been an odd case—She had reacted but not to the usual things. He shakes his head. But in the end, he had found it, her flaw, her weakness, and had pushed on it until…

He thinks back to her expression that afternoon. What had he seen? The sun had been low in the late afternoon sky and she had been standing in the slanted shade, sun filtering behind her. Perhaps only a shadow…

He looks up sharply as the waitress sets a plate in front of him. She describes his meal in a small breathy voice that he is sure some men find attractive but he finds grating, especially right now. But he nods politely as he finishes his wine in one gulp and pours another from the bottle on the table.

Noise erupts from across the room and he looks over again at the family. They are laughing loudly, as the mother tells a clearly very amusing anecdote. He notes that the husband, who sits with his back to the window, is around his own age, mid-forties, and his wife, next to him, is a few years younger. As she speaks, she leans in towards her husband, her hand resting on his shoulder. Her family bursts into laughter again.  She surveys her kids, enjoying their giggles, and then her gaze comes to rest on her husband, who is still chuckling, his shoulders moving and shaking with mirth.

From his table across the room, behind his glass of wine, he watches the wife watch her husband. Perhaps sensing his stare, she turns from her husband towards to look across the room for whatever it is she’s felt. Towards him. He sees she is still caught in the reverie of her husband’s joy when her eyes meet his. He sees her face… her expression as she stares at her husband…he inhales sharply. His mind flashes back to Anne this afternoon in the park, standing under the tree, the mottled sunlight dancing around her through the leaves. This woman’s expression across the restaurant, it is the same expression that Anne made as stared at him one final time before she walked away. He can’t look away. He sees…it wasn’t a shadow…it wasn’t a flaw. The jagged pieces of himself that he has been holding and hiding, carefully, guardedly, from all who might try to know him. To take from him.

Here, across the room, in this expression, a mirror of Anne’s, he feels the pieces shift and settle, finding a stillness. Oh, he thinks. In spite of his testing, his watching and weighing each word. In his mind, he sees this afternoon again, Anne turning away from him. And now, caught in a gaze that does not belong to him, that never will again, he wants to yell, across the room, across the night and into the past, don’t be a stranger, don’t be a stranger. Don’t ever be a stranger. The wife sees James staring at her and her intimate expression, meant for another, vanishes, erased from her face, locked away from strangers stealing private moments.

A second passes. Two. He exhales. He adjusts his watch. He looks beyond the family, out the window into the falling night that waits for him. Well. He sees a black cab passes under the streetlight, ferrying someone away from the chill that has gripped London all winter. Well, there’s nothing to be done.  He shrugs.

He sips his wine, nods, and thinks “It IS as good as the reviews say.” He’d buy a full case to add to his collection. Let it age. It would only improve. He would order it tonight. He drains his glass and stands, pushing the table away.

He strides to the door, where his coat waits for him in the arms of the willowy blond. He steps into the dark and strides the sidewalk, as confident as he always, the streetlight ahead casting his elegant shadow behind him.

7

© 2009 Kathleen Bell


A Man of Means - A Short Story

  • Author: Kae Bell
  • Published: 2016-01-17 20:40:07
  • Words: 1722
A Man of Means - A Short Story A Man of Means - A Short Story