I wake for work at three, dizzy drunk sidestep in the dark to the kitchen. Thank God for stippled walls, good as cool soothing braille. My head spins, trying to recall what led to this state of affairs. Nothing yet ghosts my foggy mind. And nothing makes a sound or moves in the usually creaky Victorian apartment. Not a window rattle or even a mousy stir.
I get my bearings, flick the light switch. Squinting, I see Secretariat sitting sejant on the greasy gas stove in a one-hundred-year-old hammered cast-iron skillet I forgot to wash and reseason while getting hammered on champaign. And beer. And wine. Majestic as the champion thoroughbred, he’s a red tabby, the runt of the litter, neutered, and fully grown. His once stubby tail is wrapped elegantly around rash-free hairy haunches, his front legs pillars upholding a bold stature. Feral in the beginning and adorably whiny, his current calm calls for sleep, which I often do at home after work. Instead of playing the ponies online or writing fiction, I nap belly down on the dusty wood floor in afternoon sunlight from the dirty bay window. Then he hops aboard, kneading slower than my hen-peck typing. Many dress shirts, cheap polyester mostly, are in disrepair, riddled with nail punctures. Still, I wear them until I can’t.
Drowsy, I lean in, our thick whiskers touch and tickle, and he purrs having eaten the crackling from last night’s salmon meant for the Caesar salad. But my date wasn’t a fan. Not even of the fug. So, no skin; spoils to kitty, finders, keepers. With sandpaper tongue, he’s even licked the oily indestructible iron ore clean down to the gloss and grit of past generations.
From the rusty faucet rushes rusty water. Sometimes I think it’s rose-colored because I wear rose-colored prescription spectacles — Benjamin Franklin rim style with bow cables. They mute the light which aches my half-closed eyes. Yet, I try to see the brighter side of life. However, sometimes behind them, I feel like a spectacle because cafe customers ask if they are real glasses or just for dramatic show.
After the water clears, I fill the dirty-ish French copper kettle.
Dirty? It's barnacled, an ex-girlfriend said. You have to clean more than cast iron!
In any case, I place it on the next burner. Before turning the knob, igniting the flame, I whisper, “I’d like to boil water for my pour-over. Or would you rather I sauté you, make you jump like Parisian veggies?”
Secretariat lifts his left paw, licks it, and wipe-washes his face, a satisfied gentleman diner with a Wet-Nap or linen napkin. With an upturned pink tender nose, his cattitude deems: In a minute. Your coffee can wait. I trump you.
And no lifting him from the pan. Secretariat likes to be touched, stroked even, but only on skittish terms. So, no sudden moves. Even when I sit to pee, which I do with the door open, he follows to the Tuxedo-Tile bathroom where the litter box is. He goes when I go. So intimate! But the smell is never charming. And I don’t chance entering if he’s already in the act. Same as if I finish first, get up and flush. The commotion chain-reacts a tornado of cat litter, odd chemicals, and paw-flung excrement that makes an impression and arts the wall abstract-style. I wait then, like at the stove, or risk swipes to the jugular.
I’m sensitive to swipes. Recently, one of my nubile staffers, tiny and pristine as a China doll, arrived at the cafe with a nasty scratch from mouth to ear, from the commissure to the pierced tragus. It was fresh, swollen, and leaking blood and serum thick as vanilla syrup. She explained in tears she was playing at home with one cat when the other attacked. The first got startled, lashed out, and caught her with a sharp nail.
“Bet that’s not the first pussy you’ve had on your face,” Phyllis, her transgender ballerina girlfriend, said. Girlfriend’s name used to be Phil and prefers to be called they.
Best line ever at five in the morning. By any gender.
Then they said to me, “I get credit if you put that in a short story.”
“Me first,” the scratched girl said. “Use my crimson blood as ink.”
Her partner said, “Such a drama queen!”
They are the generation of gender-neutral pronouns. If they only knew only a few read literature or my kind of fiction in the tech age. Or cared.
+ + +
The rustic 12-inch pan Secretariat is sitting in, akin to ironware hand-forged and hammered by a stylish, muscled blacksmith in the Middle Ages, was my mother’s. And her mother’s before that. Keen on using it only for sweet upside-down cake, they were masters at flipping it out unblemished, the pineapple rings dotted with sliced maraschino cherries intact, from the natural non-stick mirror surface. And they wanted to keep it and the taste that way. Cast iron absorbs flavors from the previous use, like chicken, garlic, or peppers. Everything. Even something neutral as cornbread. But the pan’s too eye-catching and pretty as art to sit in a cupboard only for dessert and not be looked at. Aesthetically observed. And absorbed. So, I keep it out, use it daily, and don’t mind the mix of carryover flavors.
Still waiting for Secretariat’s Olympic dismount flip, I think of last night’s dinner date, Teddy. A surprise visitor from New York, she was a former customer, like thousands, who traveled distances and waited in lines for coffee — you’d think we were the only shop in town. Teddy, it turned out, didn’t travel as far back then. She’d lived downtown in an old brick cannery converted into luxury condos. She worked in real estate, always a listings book with dog-eared pages in tow, and walked to her office across the street from the cafe.
The first time I saw her was something out of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: “A girl came into the cafe... She was very pretty, with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharp and diagonally across her cheek.”
I switched from the express register to the latte line she was in. Phyllis obliged, said, “The slender one with the haircut?”
“Incorrigible. Will you ever quit?
“Just going to ambush her?”
“That’s loaded coming from you.”
“Touché. She's from a different generation. You've got no chance. I might have before my sex change.” Then they said, “You can use that line in a story too.”
“Thanks. I will.”
I didn’t care if she was married, an affair or some fling was in order. When she stepped up, I said, “Great haircut.”
“Thanks,” she said bashfully. “My stylist talked me into it. This isn’t even my real color.” She touched the hair cut across her marble-white cheek. Her fingers were long and delicate and ringless; her nails, moon-manicured, painted only in the middle, leaving the crescent tips unpolished. “But I hate it all,” she said. “Including my nails. Makes me look like a flapper.”
“Never,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, I’m not getting an espresso drink,” she said apologetically in a hushed tone. “Just a small black coffee.”
“Sorry, force of habit.”
When I returned with it, she said, “It’s Teddy, by the way.”
I wanted to ask Roosevelt, bear, or as in nightie? But I waited; it looked like she wasn’t done talking.
“I prefer T,” she said.
“Less suggestive,” she said with piercing eye contact.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, knowing not to press or pursue.
“Thank you,” she said and half-smiled. Then she fixed her lavender-colored bra strap under the tightest button-down summer dress showing cleavage and distracted me from work, making me daydream.
For the next year, she showed up daily, spending two dollars on drip coffee, occasionally with freshly minted Sacagawea coins or a newly printed two-dollar bill, both an occasion because they were unusual tender like her. Long crooked nose and uneven bangs, she grew her hair out, trying different colors – beach blond, then chestnut until her natural mush brown. I loved them all and the way she smiled tenderly in line that went out the door, rain or shine. She’d wave awkwardly, leaning sideways, almost falling down. Besides small talk at the register — she liked my glasses, shirt selection, asked what I did besides work — that was all. Mention of my writing raised her smile and eyebrows; gambling lowered them like Mother Superior. It seemed, in fairness and respect, a nonstarter. And so, we never even dated, not even cautiously in a group setting at a bar. I didn’t even know if she drank. I was too daunted to ask her out but couldn’t wait to see her.
Once after waving to her, my next customer waved mockingly at me. A pasty frump with the same gap-toothed issues as me and kitty Secretariat, he wore a cheap aqua-blue polyester suit. I didn't know him from Adam. He sounded like a New Yorker, but his head was shaped like the Liberty Bell, wavy hair part as cracked. So, he could have been from Philly. Who knows. Then he said, “Yeah, sugar tits, can I get a tall double nonfat fuck you?”
Best line ever from a customer.
Gonna use that one, I thought. Then I said, "Is that a large nonfat latte?"
"What else would it be?"
“Right away, sir,” I said, laughing. The customer is always right, yes? “On the house,” I said. “But next time use the two other lines for espresso drinks.”
“Why can’t I get an espresso drink at the express register? Am I not free, at liberty, to move about the coffee cabin?”
“You’re on shaky ground already. But I don't make the rules.”
“Fuck that,” he said, and I wanted to seat-belt his mouth. But he continued, “You work twice as hard and fast to get to that gorgeous skinny broad in the back of the line. And if not her, some other hottie. And the other cashiers suck because they are so slow and don't give a fuck.”
“That’s why it’s on the house. Never again, though.” Not wanting to make a spectacle, I leaned forward like whispering to Secretariat, “Get in the right line next time.” I pointed to the sign above the register that said Express Line. Drip Coffee Only. Then I said, “You’re as cracked as the liberty bell. Can you read?”
He didn’t get the crack reference and looked at me like I was on crack cocaine.
“Or?” he asked and licked his lips, ready to jump the counter and fistfight like Hemingway or some damn pugilist. “You going to give me a ticket, officer?” He stared, then said, “See you tomorrow. By the way, nice glasses. Are they for real? Is that how you get all the women?”
With an upturned pink nose, he headed to the bar for pickup. Then he stopped, said, “You need my name so they can call me?”
He rolled his eyes.
Next day, I switched the staffing line up. Teddy, always looking ahead, got in the right line.
The douche suit didn't. I waved cute-like from a latte register to him in the express lane that lagged forever.
He responded by showing how upright, long, and far-reaching one of his fingers was.
+ + +
Teddy moved to New York right after 9/11. Shoulders back, chest out, she announced it with quiet resolve at the register the next morning when I finally got the courage to ask her out.
“When are you leaving?”
In desperation, I nearly grabbed her irresistible delicate hand, nearly said, Take me with you.
It was a The World According to Garp thing, she explained — straight out of the 1982 movie based on a novel by John Irving. A small part of the plot involved a plane accidentally crashing into a house Garp, a literary writer, and his wife, a college professor of literature, were looking at. Garp, played by comedian Robin Williams, asked the pilot who exited the Cessna in the upstairs window if he was all right. The pilot said yes and asked to use the phone. Garp said yes, then said to the real estate agent that he and his wife would take the house. What were the chances of a plane hitting the house again, he reasoned. It was predisastered.
Teddy thought that about New York and al Qaeda who hijacked two commercial jet airliners, Boeing 767s, and purposely flew them into the Twin Towers, igniting infernos that collapsed under their molten weight, killing 2996 people. Nineteen Islamic jihadists also died. And eventually countless more first responders and others from long-term lingering effects of exposure to the crash elements.
“It was no accident,” she said. “I’m sure we provoked them. But no way it happens again. It’s predisastered. No way they have the balls to do it again or the luck to get it done. It’s New York, the greatest city on earth. I’ve always wanted to go, so I’m going!”
Never been to New York. Or Hawaii for that matter. But I wonder if predisastered could be said for Pearl Harbor and the Japanese who attacked with 353 aircraft fighters and dive bombers in two waves, sinking 18 U.S. ships and killing 2403 people that sparked America’s entrance into the Second World War.
I once had Thanksgiving dinner with a favorite customer. Kit was her name, a money manager and motherly type who, every day, brought a tray of coffee drinks back to the office for her staff. On holidays, without fail, she brought a stack of envelopes for mine. Inside each was a greeting card with ten newly printed two-dollar bills. In mine that one time was a note: Come to dinner tomorrow night. I have someone for you to meet. Her daughter? I wondered. At the door, Kit warned me about her crazy, unmanageable Jewish family. Look out, she said with a laugh. Looneys await. I was glad I wore a new cotton dress shirt and was on my best behavior so no one would point out any holes in my etiquette. So in a house full of relatively uncrazy guests, it turned out, and no daughter, I was purposely seated next to her wiry bald father — old, gracious, dignified, and in a bow tie and wire bow spectacles. I called him Mr. Kit and he laughed at the inclusion of his daughter's first name. During apple pie dessert and port wine, he talked of the past, pulling legal tender from his wallet. Pristine and wrapped in cellophane, he raised it reverently like preserved, everlasting, unleavened bread by the most famous Jew ever. “My lucky two-dollar bill,” he said. It was in his front pocket when he was blown off the deck of the Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Descendants looked over like disciples, paying attention. Kit clapped and said, “Yay, Dad!” Then everyone clapped.
Blown away, I clapped too but didn't know what to say. I didn’t know to ask about shell shock, post-traumatic stress syndrome, or other lingering or haunting issues. Or details like seeing dive-bombing planes from far away out of the blue or bullets flying up close. Or how hard he hit the harbor water? How long did he float? Did he long for fallen comrades?
Then like an idiot, I asked if he would ever sell the lucky bill on eBay.
“Not for a million bucks,” he responded. “Meaning trumps profit. I’m lucky to be alive. What are the chances? One in how many people were killed? Do kamikazes like lightning strike twice in the same spot? Who knows. Doubt that ever happens again. Worthy of a story. You want to put it in a story? My daughter says you write.”
“A little. Also interested in gritty stories like yours and The Greatest Generation that help save and shape the world for the better.”
“Truth is, I don’t know if I shaped the world. I served my country, fought, and survived. I don’t know if we’re The Greatest Generation, hard to say. What did Gertrude Stein say to Hemingway in a Moveable Feast? The generation that fought in the first world war was a lost one, lost of morals and meaning? Lost their way. Seems too much of a blanket statement, too much of a generalization as The Greatest Generation. Who knows, because I felt plenty lost. Don’t know how we improved generations when more people died than in the first world war. We as a species may kill ourselves off unless we get our affairs in order. And stop blaming each other. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no secretary of state or war admiral, but there were nations that needed to be neutralized. But floating in the harbor, thought I’d never dry out. Or my lucky two-dollar bill.”
Me too, I thought, finishing the dessert wine, looking for the next bottle.
+ + +
First day home after adopting Secretariat from the pound, I couldn’t find him. But I heard meowing, heartbreaking whining really. I searched everywhere: the closets, under the bed. He couldn’t have gone down or got stuck in the dumbwaiter because it was sealed. The bay windows were barely cracked, the old-fashioned icebox and cupboards latched like the ironing-board compartment. The oven too. Plus, the compartment where I kept a new, neutral just-in-case cheap cast-iron pan solely for pineapple upside-down cake. Back in the bedroom, I heard it louder and opened the bottom drawer of the retro dresser to folded T-shirts. Then the next to creased pants. At the top drawer which contained rolled-up socks and boxer briefs, there was something else — a cute pop-up distressed kitten.
“How did you get in there?” I said with a smile.
He meowed, whining adorably, then moon-launched, barely missing the paint-peeled wrought iron chandelier. He landed on the mission queen bed padded by a goose-down duvet, then shot off, and disappeared.
Too tired to chase, I opened and drained a can of tuna packed in oil, put it next to me, and slept belly down on the dirty floor clean through to dinnertime.
When I woke, the tin can was empty, licked clean, and a kitten was asleep on my butt.
+ + +
Teddy showed up at my door with a suitcase on wheels, wool coat draped over the extended handle, and slightly liquored. She wasn’t staying. I was the lucky dinner stop before she cabbed north to stay with a girlfriend — her old coworker and my current customer who arranged the surprise meeting two days before.
“Didn’t think I’d find you,” Teddy whined adorably. “Cab kept circling the block, trying to drive up the fair. I tipped him Sacagaweas but I don’t think he’d seen them before. Thought they were gold! Anyway, hello,” she sighed in a typical Teddy button-up dress — alluring as a teddy or chemise, displaying lean limbs, short unpainted nails, and ever-longer hair now chestnut. Again. Her soft skin shown the color of rose water and persimmon. I resisted touching without permission. Then she hugged the hell out of me, smelling of patchouli and whiskey. She put her hand on the back of my head and smacked me with glossed sumac lips. Right on the mouth.
She let go and said, “I’ve always wanted to kiss you. Thought I’d get it out of the way.”
“Thank you,” I said, stunned. “How was the flight?”
She wandered as if in a trance through the apartment I failed to hazmat in time. “What did the comedian/filmmaker John Cleese say? ‘Relatively crash-free.’” She paused, said, “So inappropriate, but can’t help thinking about it. Who can?”
“And New York?”
“Still in shock from 9/11 but still shockingly vibrant. Such amazing people. And attitude! I’m seeing a therapist who isn’t a therapist. Well, not licensed, anyway. He did doctoral work at Johns Hopkins or somewhere. We meet in his apartment, and he charges me a bundle to talk about you.” Then she said, “So, this is the Jimmy cave. More like a dusty museum.” She took in the cat-scratched French settee bleeding white cotton, then the mahogany armories in need of lemon oil. Finally, she sat with perfect haunches in the wooden swivel chair at my antique secretary where Secretariat sometimes naps. Pages of a short story were paper weighted by a 1900s candlestick phone next to the typewriter and an open window.
“You use a manual?”
“Get used to saying that.”
“Nothing.” Then she said, “There are computers these days, you know.”
“I like old things. I like the impression of the keystrokes and the lines they make on the back of the page. Braille as if by worn train rails. Something like that. But yes, I have a laptop.” I had thoughts about her top and my lap.
“Course, that’s how you gamble on horses from home. You know, I made a pilgrimage to Belmont where Secretariat won the Belmont by 33 lengths.” Then she said, “And the Triple Crown.”
Shivers shot up my spine and I wondered if the cat was listening while in hiding, ready to pounce.
“That a real phone? Does it work?” From the forked switch hook, she raised the brass receiver akin to a tiny slim liberty bell with a cord to her ear. Then she lifted the sleek 10-inch stand and said into the duck-puckering mouthpiece, “Hello?” She pressed the receiver harder into her ear and eagerly asked hello again while almost mouthing the patina opening. Then calmly, she set the phone back on my short story and fingered the rotary at the base of the stand, dialing a zero. Then she rehooked the receiver and hung up. “No one there.”
“The landline works,” I said. “No one ever calls, but it works. Do you need to call your girlfriend?
“I got a dial tone, thought I’d hear the past — an old-fashion nasal-nose Lilly Tomlin operator. You know, ‘What city, please? How can I connect you?’” She non sequitured. “Have you heard from a publisher yet or published anything?”
“A few hand-written rejections from the New Yorker. Hundred more from elsewhere. We like the story but can’t use it — that sort of thing, a writer’s Dear John letter. Thought of wallpapering the hallway with them or hanging them on a nail like Jesus. But it doesn’t suit the dusty decor. So no, probably never.”
“There’s always hope.”
“Hope you like a little drinkie-poo.”
She twirled around in the slatted wooden chair with rubber wheels that matched her brown Mary Janes. “Yes. I do."
I resisted saying get used to that.
She said, "Sometimes I think I just like to whine.”
“Whine all you want. Lovely to see you. Mind a Merlot, champaign, beer?” I’d already clooped the bubbly.”
“The sound of uncorking.”
“I never knew. Hmm.”
“I like to play with words.”
“Sounds like a song by Men At Work.”
“Right. You want some music?”
“Not yet, but I don’t like bubbles. Maybe some wine?”
When I handed her a goblet, she said, "So elegant." Then she asked, “What’s for dinner?”
“Seared Salmon with crackling, Caesar salad, risotto, and asparagus in foamed butter.”
“My pee will stink,” she said and downed her wine. “To neutralize the asparagus issue,” she said. Before I could ask if that was true, she said, “Shouldn’t have done that. Where's the bathroom?”
“Down the hall.”
Which she rushed down. Shutting the door, she yelled, “Can you remove the salmon skin? And open all the windows?”
+ + +
She came out wobbly saying, “I think a cat was scratching on the door’s frosted windowpane. That or a big rat.”
“Na, he’s killed them all. That was Secretariat. He likes to pee in company.”
“Your cat’s name is Secretariat?” She smiled and said, “I need to lie down.” She went straight into the bedroom and crashed onto the bed, backside down, looking down for the count.
I stood there for a moment and then sat next to her. I asked, “Are you okay?”
“I just need a ten-minute nap.”
It was hard to know what was going on, if she was passing out or passively suggestive. I was thankful Secretariat wasn’t in sight, but he could kamikaze from anywhere. Teddy looked open and compromised, one arm at her side, the other — her hand really — behind her head. Still dazed by the kisses, I thought I might beat kitty to the punch-jump.
Instead, I covered her in goose down. While she napped, I made dinner and set off the smoke alarm. The cast iron got too hot on the burner and when the two-pound salmon hit the oil, I couldn’t shove the pan in the oven quick enough. I tried to fan the ghostly smoke away with a dishtowel. Then I turned on the vintage cage table fan I bought on the web now covered in cobwebs.
Teddy woke up coughing, then sipped some slightly rusty water in a cloudy glass after I disabled the alarm.
“Sorry about the smoke,” I said. “Nothing to worry about.”
She got up and eagerly came to the drop-leaf dining table set for two with unfinished Amish chairs. There was French bread in a bowl already sliced, pats of salted butter, a new bottle of wine, a half-burned candle dripping wax on the looped holder. I brought food on plates that matched the pewter goblets.
Quickly composed again, Teddy said, “Smells so good. Such a lovely display. Looks like a painting. Thanks for taking off the skin — I don’t know why it is about me and skin. Anyway, never thought about broiling asparagus.”
“I hope you like it.”
“Did you cook the salmon on a cedar plank?”
“No. Cast iron with Lapsang Souchong tea leaves.
“So woody and smokey, yet almost rare in the middle.”
Then she said, “Now, about us.”
“What about us?”
She took a few sips of wine. Thug chugged again. “Why didn’t you ever ask me out? Why didn’t we date?”
“You? I thought maybe you didn’t like my face or…”
Under the influence, I interrupted. "My best friend’s one.”
She smiled. “I was going to say girls. But okay. I thought you didn’t like pussy. And then again, I always thought you had something for the eye-catching ballerina-looking girl at the cafe.”
“Just work pals.”
“Speaking of which, remember your mop-head pal with the funny part in his hair that flipped you off in line. I thought a disaster was about to unfold. But then you laughed. What was that about?”
“Just another satisfied customer.”
We ate in silence for a few minutes. “You always made me feel satisfied.”
Again, I didn’t know what to say. So, I said, “Music?”
On the replica victrola I bought on the cheap at a thrift shop, I put on a Ben Webster album. Then I said, “Hope you like a slow breathy saxophone from the 1950s.”
“I like sax,” she said and smiled coyly. Finishing a second portion of salmon and a second bottle of wine, she said, “Why don’t we dance?”
I felt immersed in a Raymond Carver short story by a similar name.
We stood next to the table in the limp candlelight, holding each other, barely moving in a circle. I kept my hands at her slim waist. The dilapidated wood floor creaked under us. Outside in the dark, the fog gathered its slow dance.
“Can you see without your glasses?”
“Barely,” I said.
She removed and set them on the table and put her face next to mine.
“Sorry about the whiskers.”
“Don’t be, I love that you don’t shave. Then she said, “Ever think about moving to New York?”
“Is that an invitation?”
“I have a room you could write in.”
That’s when the phone rang.
I didn’t want to get it, but Teddy insisted. “It might be important,” she said.
“Probably a wrong number.”
I answered the phone anyway. An operator came over the line. “Will you accept a collect call from — ?
A voice from the past cried, haunted as a ghost. “I didn’t have any fucking coins to use for the call.”
“What? Calm down,” I said calmly.
"I did it."
“What did you do?”
“I left my car on the train tracks with every piece of cast iron you ever gave me.”
“Are you still having affairs with your lady customers?”
“We were on a break. I wasn’t having an affair, and why did you leave your car on the tracks?”
“It’s polluting the atmosphere, killing the earth. I’m just making the oil companies rich.”
“That’s a disaster waiting to happen. What if a passenger train hits the car? You’d kill someone.”
“Oh” was all she said slowly.
Then she said, “I don’t know, honey. You still wear the glasses I picked out for you? I thought they made you look gay so none of the lady customers would ask you out.”
“No one has asked me out. Where are you calling from?”
“A pay phone near the crossing.”
“Go back and get the car.”
"I bought you a new copper kettle."
"Return it. Just get the car off the tracks. Or I'm calling the police."
She didn’t say anything, and Teddy cleared the table. Then she started to wash the dishes. She’d turned on the kitchen light blinding me. I heard water going in the sink and sensed suds were forming. I wanted to say I’ll do that, I'll wash up but didn’t want to divulge more within either woman’s earshot. After a moment, my eyes adjusted. Then a blurry Secretariat poked his head and shiny eyes out from the shadows of the bedroom, wanting to see what the hell was going on.
“Okay,” she finally said over the phone. “Can I call you when I get home?”
“Yes, just to let me know you and the car are safe.”
When I hung up, Teddy said, “That didn’t sound like a wrong number. Sounded like a mix of a 9/11 and 9-1-1 call. You still love her.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Is she the real reason you never asked me out? Former customer?”
“She was allergic to Secretariat” was all I said.
After a pregnant pause, drying her hands with a dishtowel, smile gone, she said, “Would you call a cab?”
Quietly, she put on her wool coat and grabbed her luggage. We took the turn-of-the-century elevator with the iron gate down to the street where the cab was waiting at the curb in the fog.
Teddy got in, neither of us waved. I went back upstairs and finished the opened and unopened bottles, waiting for the phone call.
+ + +
“Could you get off the stove so I can make coffee?”
Secretariat finally obliges, landing softly on the linoleum floor, barely a padded paw sound. He sits with his rear to me, reaches around, licks furry haunches with that sandpaper tongue. Still reaching, looking up, he makes eye contact as though to say there will be the next date for me, predisastered or not, the next treat for him, and a mutual needing and kneading later today. Best predawn look by a cat ever. Then he goes about his way. Probably to my warm pillow and goose-down covers.
I rinse the heavy cast-iron skillet in lukewarm water; don’t want to shock it, and slowly scour with steel wool for any remaining burned on bits. There are none. Good Secretariat. I dry it, then set it on the burner on a low flame. When it comes to temperature, I’ll crank the heat and pour on seven drops of grapeseed oil, buff with a paper towel until it smokes, remove from the heat. Let it cool. This is the seasoning process, a ritual that keeps the enemy rust away and restores the glossy state and patina.
The kettle whistles. I remove it from the heat, slowly pour hot water over the fine ground coffee in a papered plastic cone into a large mug. There is a high-pitched cloop, the sound of a gunshot uncorked. Fired. I jump and duck simultaneously, wonder where the shot came from. Was it a drive-by? A drug deal gone bad? A suicide? Grassy knoll is out of the question because there are none nearby. Maybe a stray bullet from across the street? The roof even. In any case, it feels violent and violating. Alarming. I set the kettle down, look around, see if I’ve been hit. There are no blood spots or holes in windows or walls or doors. The bed is empty, Secretariat has gone into hiding.
Back in the kitchen, I see it. On the stove, down the center of the hammered, indestructible pan is something between a close-up x-ray of a hairline fracture and a far-away satellite picture of a fault line. In any case, the crack is clear as the Liberty Bell’s, which cracked, historians say, because its mostly bronze and copper walls were too thin and brittle to be struck and rung. Apparently, even thick walls and bottoms of cast iron can break with a bang from stress after generations of use. Or maybe it was just faulty. Like anything. Like anyone. Like me. Who knows?
I want to curse and yell like hell, but it’d hurt my sore ringing head and soar Secretariat into orbit.
After a forlorn moment, I turn off the flame under the broken pan, which is beyond repair, wanting to cool off, sleep it away, wake to something new, promising, lasting. Then I remember to finish my pour-over, gently as possible, before the grounds for this affair dry out.