The Iron Bars
Mister tocks the thick pads of his fingertips like a dripping faucet against the glass plate on the place mat before him. He, seated since a quarter after, thinks, Late, she’s late, as usual. He shifts the worn leather band of his watch, noting the time: 4:21. She’s always late, so this hardly seems worth notice. He gazes out through the intricate metal scrollwork, casts a long glance toward sun-washed city sidewalks, and then adds, as usual, punctuating his discursive thoughts. Above his head the cheap four-blade fan chases itself round, round. The motor strains as if it knows that cooling down the tight room from the summer heat is Mister’s only chance to have a peaceful afternoon. Why it bothers, I don’t know. It, as does everyone who comes here, knows the routine.
His wife, Misses, that’s actually what he calls in day-to-day life, Misses, even on the rare instances when he whispers her name in bed like a hesitant question. He does not use her given name. Her gait a stiff breeze, she will swish into the room in a clichéd hurry, implying that her time is at a premium. This will rustle the fronds of potted, tropical foliage. After announcing her arrival to the whole of the restaurant and settling—with undue clatter—her ample posterior upon the white lacquered seat, she—supercilious in her air—will order her customary house salad with avocado dressing (croutons on the side) and—yes, perforce—stall the server, the poor dear. I know this particular server’s name to be Norman, usually a very congenial fellow—that is, in her absence, of course. De rigueur, the woman will concoct some pretense of interest about the special of the day, inquire as to the freshness of the ingredients used to cook the soup du jour, and sigh as Norman, who also knows the routine, excuses himself to fill the much-neglected water pitchers that, thus far, have managed to wait all afternoon. Following the customary ten minutes he allows her to vacillate on an entree already decided, Norman will return, so Misses may inform him, The salad will suffice. He will grumble into the kitchen, place her order, and make a snide comment to the cook, something to the effect that she probably still has this morning’s pastry box (nary a crumb remaining) crumpled beneath her passenger seat. I hope you will not consider his rapier wit cruel; it is simply his way. Taking a running start, Norman will racewalk past the couple and drop off their entrees with a blurred rush of words:
This is what he will say before barreling back through the swinging doors of the kitchen and exhaling. He, meaning Norman, has related as much to me on days like today when business is slow and conversation scarce. Later, the rest of Mister’s meal will arrive, bread and soup and appetizer and entree and coffee and dessert, and it will seem to consist wholly of a series of varied-octave, stainless steel clinks substituting for a lack of intimacy. The rippling will impinge the dead air between him and his wife. If you have been to D.C. and eat an early dinner, perhaps you have seen them. They are near impossible to miss.
4:27, Mister thinks, shaking his cuff over the sharp rise of his filigree wrist. Maybe she’s had an accident. An accident. It’s possible. Dupont Circle, a Maryland driver. It’s more than quite possible. It’s probable. Calmly, Mister peers out the restaurant’s plate glass window and through the intricacies of the iron, burglar bars to inspect the street for some sign of Misses. Instead he discerns two women, arms interlaced. They read the menu placard poised outside the restaurant’s entrance. Enthralled, he watches them. They appear to be drunk—with each other’s company. They are having a brief, animated discussion, not threatening, for they both take turns grinning. One of the women inspects the contents of her leather tote, pulls out her wallet. She seems satisfied with the contents. The younger of the two holds open the door. The sound of the cowbell rigged above the door clangors. The Black woman walks in stifling a laugh.
I’ve got enough to cover us, the older one says, the laughter nearly squelched. Norman directs them to a table cater-corner from Mister. I don’t want to have to use the card. Too much explaining.
The older woman is a study of pleasant incongruities. An untouched fringe of grey arcs over her left ear and conjures images of a rock-strewn hill of dark soil. Her bone structure imparts a series of jags and crags like scintillating earth; her jaw crests forward, a cliff before dropping off into the stacked curves of her body. Mooneyed, the younger woman follows closely behind, holding her own body lithely erect as if a climber ever-willing to ascend the precipitous mount. Mister checks himself. He’s staring but determined not to be rude. He averts his eyes down to the linen napkin resting upon his lap.
He thinks, It must be wonderful to be so brave. Openly affectionate, even if this is the Fruit Loop…Dupont Circle, he corrects himself. Anyway, the older woman must have ten years on the girl who is certainly, as anyone can obviously tell, not a girl at all. That’s if the older woman’s skin is telling the truth. Could be more. He shuffles these thoughts and the crumpled napkin in his lap simultaneously. You never know with those black women. But the younger woman, no problem. Twenty-four, twenty-five easy.
He notes the time. 4:32. Maybe Misses really did have an accident. Could be dead, he thinks. If this was the first time this thought had traipsed across his mind, maybe he would be embarrassed, but it isn’t, and he’s not. Mister’s thoughts wander. If Misses is dead, I can pay off the house with her life policy, pay off the car with her company-provided coverage. That would leave me with—let’s see—a $5000 Visa, about $1000 over the limit. I could probably pay that off, too, but I do love her, and she must have a nice funeral. No need to be chintzy. He fixes on the decorative pewter spittoon, followed quickly by the sweating pitchers of water. He stares at nothing, some arbitrary point outside the barred window and repeats, I do love her, after all. A tinge of guilt, though fleeting, flusters him. He needn’t convince anyone save himself.
Again, though not meaning to, his eyes inadvertently seek out the couple seated at a cramped table a few feet across the way. Mister watches as the younger woman’s nimble fingers brush away a breadcrumb from the other woman’s cheek. A gesture, no more. The older woman smiles and continues chatting. Sunlight glares through the scripted lettering of the restaurant’s name to be dissected into light and shadows by the iron gate. The diffused rays pour through the painted letters, washing a blue swath across the two faces, one light and one dark.
Honey, don’t be like that. You know I would stay tonight if I could, but I can’t. You know I can’t. The older woman butters a roll as she speaks, carefully coating the entire surface, offering a morsel to the younger woman. It would cause too much trouble at home, and you know Richard and I’ve been at each other—a lot lately. Be patient. Try to, anyway. It won’t be that much longer. The older woman leans forward, one hand sliding across the table, with an endearing smile to disarm her lover’s discontent. I promise. I only need the right occasion…
Right occasion, Mister thinks before he realizes he’s staring. Again. This time he turns his attention to the weathered satchel at his knee. He fumbles with the tarnished brass buckles of the leather bag to extract a book of short, short stories. Mister always carries a book; it comes in handy when Misses is this late. She is forever late; it is only a matter of degrees. Opening the book and removing the pale ribbon marker, then laying it carefully aside, he begins to read but is soon distracted, pushed inward by the trail of dark words across the page, weaving his own desultory thoughts with the macabre thread.
I can give Misses’ sister, Claire, her clothes. It would please her to have them. And her other sister Meagan, that meddlesome snot, deserves nothing. Her mother can have the china. Yes, the china with blue cornflowers for Edna. Perfectly good stuff. After all, she picked it out, and we never use it. Just sits packed in boxes in the mahogany hutch, where it’s been for years. Plus, Edna was the one who insisted that we include it on the registry. Mister thinks, Yes, all we ever really needed was a decent set of everyday dishes. He rereads the looping paragraph that lays open before him, trying to pay closer attention to the plot, but he drifts, …And I could get rid of all that porcelain bric-a-brac and chinoiserie that has to be dusted every week as well as those godawful Boston ferns. Most definitely the ferns. They shed dead leaves all over the dining room like dirty little tears.
The cowbell sounds. Mister looks up to see who has entered the restaurant. Not her, not anyone, just a stray sound, he mumbles as he flips his wrist to check the time: 4:39. He begins to count the pristine place settings, taking in differences between each of the tablecloths on the surrounding tables, and his eyes are once more drawn to only other patrons, the couple, seated across from him. Norman returns and delivers their entrees with a flourish. As best he can discern, from what little he can see and the poignant smell, it must be oysters and mussels. Norman places it in front of the older woman. A very fine selection, he says,I’m sure it will be to your liking. Something Norman has never said to either Mister or Misses. See, Mister thinks, she is brave. I would never order seafood.
Daphne, I do care how it affects you. More than you believe, the older woman is saying. The younger says something that becomes lost in her chest. I love you, you know I do, the older is speaking again. Oh…don’t crinkle your nose up like that. I will leave him. She drapes her hand, face down, in the younger woman’s open, waiting palm. I’ll leave. I will.
Mister hears these clipped word and pauses reading as if he has never realized that was a possibility. I won’t ever have the courage to leave. Never. Neither the Misses nor I will. We talk about it, make threats, but who takes whom seriously. We certainly don’t take each other seriously. We don’t want that kind of blame. It’s so permanent. Neither of us wants to be the one to be labeled as having been selfish enough to ask the unspeakable. The server stops at the table to check on him, and Mister’s chance to grasp this inchoate thought fully dissolves:
While you’re waiting, would you like your usual, sir?
Yes, an Old-Fashion…please.
Of course, sir.
Mister broods in his dark corner of the restaurant, like a miser with newfound wealth, clutching to hold onto the edges of this ephemeral thought as it dissipates beneath the whir of the fan. He casts a forlorn eye out the barred window at the bright energy of the congested streets: horns honking, a pedestrian darting between car bumpers and hoods, tires screeching, a cyclist tagging a ride on the door handle of a moving car, a blurted obscenity. Those horrible gates—messing up my view. What good are they? It’s not like they would stop someone who was determined. Truly wretched things, Mister thinks. No matter how the design changes it is all the same horrid-looking stuff. You can’t escape what they mean. Mister lets out a resigned sigh. The loudness of the sound startles him. He looks at his watch, the second hand ticking. His gaze seeks the two women. They sit within the banded light--half-illuminated, half-obscured. Mister plods his fingers across the empty plate. One, one…two,two…three,three…four.
Norman returns with the drink Mister ordered, and he, grudgingly, goes back to reading, pouring over his book. His eyes skipping over lines, whole paragraphs. He occasionally sips the heavily bittered liquid, determined not to notice the time. Resolute that he will not watch the couple, he snaps shut the book. He reads the back cover of review blurbs. The Assignation.
And why don’t you leave? he interrupts his reading. Why not? That woman can do it. It’s been done. He looks at the couple, the older woman in particular. Well? he thinks. Why can’t I? It’s not like I’m leaving for my secretary. I would be leaving for myself, which is the same as no one at all. What would it mean besides no more having to endure these damn Friday evening dinners? As these adumbrations reveal themselves, the change in the older woman’s appearance distracts him. Mister watches as the elder of the two, clutching at her side, excuses herself to the restroom.
The woman’s taut skin now appears languid. She assures, I’m fine. Daphne maneuvers and slides from behind the table to assist the woman, accompany her, whatever is called for. No, really, the older one says, I really am o-kay, before she makes her way down the ill-lit foyer, with careful steps, to the bathroom. Alone.
Mister sips his drink until the ice rattles and orders another. A double. The older woman still has not returned by the time the server sets the fresh cocktail before him. Cock. Tail. Surely no one could have been so crass, he thinks. Would the gentleman like to go ahead and order? Norman asks. Mister curbs his instinct, doesn’t check his wrist.
Yes, I’ll have my usual… he begins and then, noticing Daphne, the ways she’s fidgeting, smiles at her. She returns an anxious simper. No, he says, returning his attention to the server, Norman, I think I’d like to see a menu please.
Very well, sir!
Norman vanishes and reappears, instantaneously, with a full, toothy grin. Mister fumbles with the baffling menu.
What do I want? What do I want?
Would you like for me to suggest something, sir?
Mister looks up at Norman, suddenly unsure if the server means something else, but then notices the older woman stumbling out of the darkness of the arched doorway leading from the foyer. Her thick lids falter, her steps waver. Quietly, she slumps down the wall. Daphne, without hesitation, darts to her side.
Lorraine, what’s the matter? Tell me what’s wrong.
Lorraine is graceful, sprawled across the tile floor. She attempts to sit. The effort fails. Both Norman and Mister move to see if they can be of assistance.
No, I’m fine. Really. I’ll be okay in a moment. Dee, just help me stand. Please.
Norman and Mister help move her to an upright position. Daphne layers Lorraine’s limp arm around her shoulder like a shawl, gently tugging at the older woman’s dangling wrist. She even manages to raise Lorraine to her feet, but it’s as if Lorraine’s melted. This time she’s clutching at her stomach.
Should I call an ambulance, ma’am? Norman asks.
Yes, Daphne says, her voice authoritative—and panicked.
Lorraine’s eyes go from faint to wide. No! You can’t. She now turns to Daphne. I can’t. How will I explain?
Norman halts, unsure of which directions to follow.
Okay, then you’ll have to show me. Get up and walk. Can you do that? For me?
Lorraine tries again and is unable to right herself. Her feet refuse to stay beneath her. Norman shifts his glance skeptically to meet Daphne’s, waiting for instructions.
Call an ambulance, now, Daphne says.
The server rushes away toward the kitchen.
You can’t, you just can’t. He can’t find out. Not this way. It’s all wrong.
So you dying on the floor of some restaurant sounds rational. This is crazy.
Daphne slides down upon her knees. She places Lorraine’s head in her lap. You know I’ll do whatever you want, but I… They gaze at each other, as though affecting some sad, mutual understanding. Daphne slides the backside of her fingers down the older woman’s pallid cheek, but Daphne, try as she may, cannot quite sculpt her own lips into a smile. Lorraine closes her fingers around the younger woman’s steadfast grasp.
Never looking away, Daphne says, Call, call now, her voice barely audible like shame.
Dee? Lorraine says. Daphne understands. Go, the young woman says to Mister, See what’s taking so long. Is the ambulance coming or not?
Mister hastens away across the chipped, marbled tiles and through the kitchen doors. He moves past the cutlery, the hanging arrangement of copper pots, around the woodblock island stationed in the center of the room, past the utility sinks. Reaching a small desk near the rear exit, Mister finds Norman on the phone. The cook is standing next to him. Both are giving out directions and street names, each correcting the other, their voices frantic. Mister believes he hears the slight sound. A cowbell a ways in the distance. Norman hangs up the phone, and finally, all three stride through the kitchen door and into the main dining room. They look at the tiled floor where they left the couple. They look at the table where Daphne and Lorraine had been seated. They look around the intimate confines of the restaurant.
The cook says, I’ll check the restroom, hurrying away. He returns almost immediately. No one. All the stalls are empty. I looked.
Baffled, Norman begins to tell the cook every detail he can recall, some in order, some not, doing the best he can working from memory alone. Mister stares out the barred, glass window. He moves to the restaurant door, opens it, causing the cowbells to clank against one another. His birdlike gaze is drawn to the clarity of the simple sound. Once outside he cranes his neck both right and left, stretching upward. He looks up and down the dense sidewalks, studies each moving face. There is no trace of the couple. Mister stands in the diminishing light of the afternoon sun. He can hear the bustle of the streets subdued by the unmistakable far-off blare of sirens approaching. Mister checks his watch. His wife still has not arrived.