by Shelly Lowenkopf
Cole confronted a lifetime of his big sister’s track record of right choices. “I want this to work.”
Cole’s sister offered a raised brow he recognized from the reaches of similar gestures from their history. Not disapproval. Meg didn’t disapprove; not of him. Meg wanted him to succeed.
“And why Perry’s, of all places?” Meg said. “Why not here? That’s a genuine offer. She’s been here before. She knows everyone. “We’re glad to do it because—”
“I know,” Cole said. “You’re happy for me. Your entire family’s happy for me. Means a lot. Really.”
“I enjoy details.” Felt his cheeks begin to redden when he let on, “Perry’s? My favorite restaurant.”
Meg sent disappointment his way. Landed with a smack. “Such a boy thing, Perry’s. Stiff drinks, comfort food menu. Elaborate ice cream deserts no one ever orders, except boys who’ve had two or more of the stiff drinks.”
“I want this to go well,” Ken said. “Not like my last disaster.” Grimaced distaste. “I even went to New York for—”
“I saw the box,” Meg said. “Not surprised you’d think to go to New York for it. You could have bought local.” With her own, more emphatic sweep of the hand, she made an arc over the photos, pamphlets, and documents spread over the kitchen table. “Why do I suspect of all this—”
“Preparation,” Ken said.
“Evidence,” Meg said. “Except we’re not talking courtroom trial here. You seem to have forgotten a vital consideration. Does Maddy like Perry’s?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“You’re lawyering up on me, Little Brother. Does Maddy like Perry’s? Not a tough question. Have you ever taken her there?”
“We usually go to Stella Mare or Bouchon.”
“But not Perry’s?”
“Never mind ‘Geez, Meg.’ There are three kinds of restaurants, boy restaurants, girl restaurants, and neutral ground restaurants. Perry’s is a boy restaurant. Have you ever taken Maddy to Petit Valentien?”
“Boy restaurants mean something different to a girl.” She paused to let this sink in. Reminded him of earlier times, her how-to-get-along-with-girls lectures when he needed advice.
“You want things to go the way you hope, bring her here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Missed your true calling, Ken.”
“You may ace it as a lawyer, but in your heart, you’re always conducting orchestras. You’re a control freak in a tuxedo.”
Okay, maybe Meg’s approach had merit. He did over-plan. And she knew it. Still cherished the Zippo lighter gift from Meg, back when he smoked. Had part of the text of Occam’s razor engraved on the side. The simplest solution is the best solution. So, away with the clumpy pocket file of honeymoon cruises, the photos of places they might live while searching for a starter home. The drape of his jacket sighed in relief without them. Meg always made sense. Give a nod to her bias about Perry’s, but Perry’s could take care of itself.
Okay, then. Nothing but the neat little blue box from Tiffany, containing the engagement ring. Hardly made his jacket pocket bulge. She might even notice, make the variation on the old Mae West joke, “Looks like you’re glad to see me.”
Hummed to the radio during the drive to Maddy’s. Comforting, the way Bach got such a rich effect from a Brandenburg Concerto. No frills. All the instruments contributing.
Bounded up the steps to Maddy’s door. Overcome with the effect of her when she greeted him. Even in a pantsuit, she radiated. “Wow,” he said.
“You wore a tie,” Maddy said.
“I wanted this evening to be special.”
“Special,” she said. Was that a flicker of suspicion? “You didn’t tell me where we’re going.”
“Perry’s,” he said. When he opened the car door for her, couldn’t tell from her reply, “Oh, boy.” Or “Hoo boy.”
In the car, Maddy said, “ I wasn’t expecting Perry’s.”
Fired up the BMW. Didn’t quite burn rubber when he pulled off, but the squeal of acceleration sounded like a cheer. “Yeah, Perry’s. Special place.”
“I can tell from the way you drive.”
Perry’s. Generous sprawl of a steakhouse restaurant, stuck in the rear of a strip mall off upper State Street. Local legend had the mall named after a lovesick Italian stonemason, name of Loreto. Nice if true. Suited Ken’s mood.
Gave his name, reservation time to the hostess.
“Aw, sorry, Mr. Cole. Should have told you when you called. We keep our booths for parties of four or more—” Stopped when she saw Maddy. “Miss Dunn. Didn’t realize it was for you. He shoulda said. Happy to seat you wherever you’d like. So nice to see you again.”
“Whoa,” Ken said. “You never said you’d been here before.”
“You never asked.”
On their way to the booth, “Hey,” Ken said. “You okay? You seem—”
“What?” she slid into the booth. “What do I seem?”
Slid in next to her. Bumped the pocket with the ring against her. “Abstracted.”
“That’s good, Ken. Really good. Abstracted.”
“Hey,” he said. “What gives?”
Man in a dark suit, curly white hair, stood before them. No clip-on tie for him. Hand-tied bow. He presented a champagne bottle. “Miss Dunn,” he said. “So nice you’re here. The moment I saw you, I went back for this. Nothing elaborate. A California champagne. Our complements. I’ll have your waitress serve it.” Nodded to Ken as though an afterthought. Backed away.
“Wow,” Ken said. “Champagne. I was going to order. And some shrimp appetizers.” Motioned to the waitress. Felt that inner wave of confidence crest. On our way to Mr. and Mrs. Cole. Start of a tradition. Anniversary dinners for two, in this booth.
“That what you were thinking, Ken? Champagne and shrimp. That how you were going to start this?”
Motioned to the waitress again. “I get it now. Maybe I wasn’t so secretive, after all. You read me. You guessed.” He reached to pat her arm. “Can’t hide anything from you. I really like it that you saw.”
“Then let’s get right to it, okay, Ken?” Withdrew her arm from his touch. “Fuck the champagne. Fuck the shrimp.” Started probing her purse. Found her cell phone. “In fact, fuck you.” Started thumbing a number.
“What’s going on here? What gives?”
“You brought me here to dump me. Okay, I’m dumped. Now, I’m calling Uber to pick me up.”
....to find out what gives, please read the rest of Shelly's story in Hurricanes & Swan Songs, available on Amazon.
Shelly Lowenkopf lives, writes, and teaches in Santa Barbara. Former editor-in-chief of four book publishers; ran the LA office for what was then Dial, Dell, Delacorte Press. Had an editorial hand in three genre magazines and one literary journal. Reviewed fiction for major metropolitan dailies, taught at graduate, undergraduate levels for thirty-five years. Did all this with a BA and abundant chutzpah.