Jack’s text is all of six words.
And it comes in the middle of cross-town traffic.
“Share a meal, Clair? Some vino?”
I crank the wheel to avoid a cement truck, hit the voice-to-text button right after I flip off the driver.
“As if. No,” I say out loud to the empty car.
“Benny’s at five-thirty,” texts Jack. “Some wine. Some calamari. See you then.”
Dinner with Jack.
Ask me to memorize Macbeth or learn to speak Chinese—both of which I’d rather do if I had a clear five minutes—which I likely never will, should I live to be a thousand. Chief financial officer for the credit union, that’s me. Not to mention VP at the Chamber of Commerce; head of the church improvement committee; picture-perfect mom to picture-perfect princess twins; travel coordinator for said daughters’ soccer league; tennis coach at the country club; groceries, laundry, TV and—oh yeah, the occasional bathroom break—I don’t have five lousy seconds, let alone an hour to watch my spouse ingest overcooked chicken while he mansplains the history of the freakin’ National Guard.
Which Goddamn-Jack-Almighty well knows. He’s seen my schedule. He knows how overcommitted I am.
But then I have a thought. A way to make the night worth some rearranging.
As ever, I’m goal-oriented.
I squeeze him in.
Before I know it—whoosh, I’m at Benny’s, sitting across the table. Back straight, eyes forward, fallen arches flat on the dark hardwood floor. I shake back my two-hundred dollar sandy brown haircut and marvel at the evening crowd. Men and women at tables all around us, laughing, smiling, chatting. How do they find time to relax? Freakin’ losers is what they are.
Goddamn life is nothing but a whooshing blur.
Then I think, after tonight there’ll be some down time. I can’t help but laugh at that one.
Down time for somebody. For sure.
Across the table from me, Jack’s a grinning, over-privileged blond ape. Pretty boy jock. Gung-ho Army man.
The waiter stops by our table.
He’s cute with glasses. His name is Don. I order the calamari with dipping sauce.
And give Don a knowing wink. We have a secret. Set up on the way over.
Don knows me. He winks back.
They all know me.
Every restaurant in town knows me. God knows we never eat at home.
I check my watch. “Don’t tell me you’ve got the night off, Jack.”
Jack pours the wine. “Third shift is overstaffed, we rearranged the calendar is all. I got lucky.”
I’m thinking I got lucky.
I say so. “I never would’ve been able to make the time for this.” I swallow half the glass and shove it across the white linen cloth. “More, please.”
“Hey, go easy. We’ve got all night.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”
If he only knew.
“Like I said, if you hadn’t have texted when you did, I never would’ve had time.”
He ignores me. Like usual. “I was thinking we should talk,” he says.
My mind races down twelve tracks at once.
Oh, yeah, dickhead. There’s plenty to talk about. Missed birthdays. Missed anniversaries. Missed meals and family vacations forever cancelled.
There’s Jack’s mother’s fur coat, promised to his daughter at birth, pawned for a hunting rifle. There’s the family property in Maine. There’s the stocks and bonds, cashed in and lavished on his new girlfriend who I’m not supposed to know about—what’s her name? Trudy?
I drink and push the empty glass over. “Fill ‘er up.”
This time he stops at half a glass. “I’d like you to be sober. When you hear what I have to say, I mean.”
“Sure.” I drain the glass and again, look at my watch. “Go,” I say.
His eyes go to my wrist and he shoot me a question. “Do you have someplace you need to be later tonight? I guess I should’ve asked.”
My God, this man.
“Only to pick up our daughters. From choir practice? She’s done at eight.”
“Oh, crap. Sorry.”
He really didn’t know. Didn’t even think about the girls. “You couldn’t bother to ask where they are tonight?”
Jack shrugged. “I figured you had them busy doing…something.”
Don arrives with the plate of calamari rings, all golden-brown fried and piled high. He puts the appetizer down in the middle of the table. Sets a bowl of red dipping sauce next to it.
I tingle, loving the anticipation.
Imagine Jack, blue faced, blowing chunks of blood.
“Try the sauce, Jack,” I say. “You’ll love it.”
“Just as you ordered, Clair,” says Don.
But I don’t like the way he says it. He winks again and departs.
Was there something off about the way he said my name? Something not right.
“Clair.” Like he’s taking a tone.
Like maybe him and me aren’t okay on the plan.
I thought we were okay on the plan.
My stomach does a little lurch.
Which doesn’t matter, because I won’t be eating anything tonight. “Save your appetite for the funeral lunch,” I tell myself and giggle out loud.
The wine’s getting to me. I giggle again.
“What’s funny?” says Jack.
“Nothing,” I say. “Try the sauce.” Giggling again.
Jack scoops up a healthy dollop of dip on his calamari ring. Stuffs it into his mouth.
Giggle. “Gimme another drink,” I say.
What would I do without Don?
Without Don, I wouldn’t even have time to kill my husband.
I don’t have time for this kind of shit. The bitching about her schedule.
Twenty years of marriage—God, I hate that giggle. Like a little-damn-girl.
And so, naturally, I went and made two more just like her. Giggling damn girls spreading make-up and clothes all over the freakin’ place.
And all the damn shoes.
Claire’s wristwatch caught a gleam of Benny’s recessed light.
She drank again from her glass.
How long did it take this stuff to work? Goddamn that Don. If he screwed me over…
“It’s not like I have all the time in the world,” I say, and Clair seems to sober up. “I really did want to talk to you about the girls.”
“What about the girls?”
On the defense now, she tosses back her head. I really hate that haircut. I want to tell her that. Want to wipe my disdain in her face like used toilet paper.
But I’m nothing if not on task.
“Well, just if something were to happen to us, I’d want—”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
“Nothing, nothing. It’s just, I’ve been thinking—with me re-upping in the Guard and taking on the board position at the Sportsman’s Club, with the girls older now—I don’t wanna drop the ball…”
“Oh, you’ve done that plenty,” Clair says. Real snarky like. Her lip curls up like it’s snagged on a fishing hook.
Imagine what she’ll look like in an hour when the stuff in the wine takes effect. Imagine her lip snagged for eternity. “Let me fill your glass,” I say, finishing the bottle.
“Thanks. Eat up,” she says, and I swallow another appetizer.
“I notice you’re not drinking any wine,” Clair says.
“I notice you’re not eating any calamari.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“They make the best damn dipping sauce here at Benny’s.” I have another bite and relish the burn at the back of my throat.
Odd. The dipping sauce never burned before.
“Anyway,” I say, “I just wanted you to know I had my attorney change the will. If something happens, the girls will go to my Aunt Agnes.”
“Like hell.” Cough. Cough.
“W-went d-down the wrong pipe,” Clair says. Cough.
“If not Agnes, who? I don’t have time to run around looking for somebody else. You’re not the only one with more obligations than God.”
Cough. Cough. “I…don’t know…not Agnes.”
Stupid bitch would argue with her dying breath. In fact she is.
I reach for my water glass. Untouched until now. Damn, my throat burns. “Let’s…let’s just table it for later, huh?”
“Table the discussion.” I stand up, pick up my phone. The numbers on the face move in a blurry circle. “I’ve got to go. Forgot I was supposed to pick up my suit at the cleaners.”
Across from me, Clair climbs to her feet. Pushes back her chair awkwardly. “Yeah, yeah.” Cough. “Me too. I’ve got to drop off some papers at the accountant.”
I reach for my water glass and tip it over. It falls on the aged hardwood floor of Benny’s Hot house. Steakhouse. But hot.
I pull my tie loose from around my neck. “Never been so damn…hot…” I dig at my collar.
Clair’s sagging back into her chair. “I…don’t have time for this,” she says.
“Me neither,” I say.
She can’t giggle anymore. Instead, there’s a choking kind of sound somewhere deep. Far off.
Maybe it’s me making the sound.
“I’ve got too much to do to die,” I say. My knees hit the floor as I collapse.
Before everything goes black, I hear Claire’s last words on earth. “Put it…on your calendar,” she says.
As I feel the blood churning up from my lungs, I realize—my calendar is suddenly wide open.