“Come in,” I say. The hallway light near the staircase is flickering again. Betty asked me to fix it, but I forgot.
“Thank you,” he says. “This is for you.”
I take the wine. It’s red. I like beer.
“Hi Richard. How are you?” says Betty appearing out of the kitchen. She’s wearing her real smile.
“I’m good. Thank you for inviting me. It smells delicious in here.” He has a nice voice and he spaces his words well. It’s slow and soothing.
“Don’t be silly. It’s our pleasure. Eric why don’t you take Richard’s jacket and talk in the living room, I just need one more minute to finish and I’ll uncork this lovely gift,” she says taking the bottle from me. “Ha, Richard how did you remember, The Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir. It looks delightful,” she says. I didn’t know she liked Pinot Noir.
I don’t want to be left alone with him, but I take his jacket and he loosens his tie.
“Here we go,” I say showing him to the living room. I plop down in a chair and he follows suit.
Richard looks about my age, maybe thirty-five, but probably more active. His clothes fit well. I look down at my own outfit. I have a little more insulation under my button down and there is a small stain on my khakis. I wet my finger and rub, but it won’t come out. He’s tall, too.
“Would you like something to drink?” I ask with nothing really in mind. We don’t keep hard liquor.
“No, thank you, I’m okay for now,” he says.
“Just let me know.” I don’t have very much to say to him. I’m anxious for Betty to return.
“Thanks again for inviting me by the way. I tend to eat alone these days,” says Richard shifting in his seat, placing one leg over the other so that a bit of his argyle socks are just visible.
The thought depresses me and I don’t know what to say. I just rewet my finger and go back to work on the stain.
“Here you go,” says Betty entering the room. She’s holding two wine glasses filled half way and hands one to Richard. He gets up to relieve her.
“Oh…Eric here,” he says holding it out for me to take realizing there are only two glasses.
“Eric doesn’t enjoy wine,” intercedes Betty. Betty is wearing her new spring dress and her hair is done nice. Straight. Around her neck are the pearls that she surprised herself with for her birthday. She’s even wearing her black heels. She’s a fraction taller than me when she wears them. But I don’t mind. She looks beautiful. I think to tell her this.
“I’m sorry I should’ve brought something else,” says Richard.
“No. I’ll just grab a beer,” I say quickly.
“Well then dinner is served. This way, if you don’t mind,” she says leading Richard to the dining room.
The good china is out, a wedding gift from her Aunt Marge. The food’s out too and my stomach grumbles. I take my normal seat by the main window. There’s a cold Blue Moon already set. Betty sits in her normal seat and puts her wine glass down. Richard does the same. Betty invites Richard to say grace. He does. Out of respect, I bow my head. Betty thanks him and we begin.
There’s turkey and yams, stuffing too. Richard asks for the mashed potatoes and I pass them before digging in. Once I get going I don’t stop. Why would I? I don’t follow much of the conversation anyhow. I think, how many peas can I fit in my mouth at one time? I start slow with a spoonful. Then add another and another. I figure each spoonful must be like twenty peas. I switch to the serving spoon instead. It can hold probably close to fifty. Betty sips her wine and shoots me a look. They’re not even fresh. They’re the frozen kind; I saw her take them out of the freezer earlier. I swallow and stop.
Richard says something about his childhood in Long Chester or maybe about his sister’s children in Long Chester.
“I’d like a couple of my own,” says Betty. I turn towards her. Her eyes haven’t moved off him. I polish off the beer, get another. When I return they’re talking about the last book they read. Then switch to a short story that someone from the book club had forwarded.
“It was disturbingly beautiful. The passion. To feel such tremendous love for another is incredible. I mean of course she’s crazy, but it’s the love that drives her to do it,” says Betty.
Richard says slowly and with meaning, “That’s why he’s Faulkner. The way he takes us through the town, the way he invites us in on the action. I felt like I was a member of the town, rummaging through Emily’s house. And to find that gray hair on the pillow beside Homer’s body.” Richard’s voice starts to shake. I look up from my plate, turkey in my mouth, chewing. His eyes are moist. Betty’s eyes too.
“It…well, it get’s lonely sometimes, you know,” he continues. A lone tear twists down his flushed cheek. It’s uncomfortable to look at. I want to wipe it. It doesn’t faze him though and he continues. Betty puts her hand on him and leans in to console him. “Sometimes I wish I could lie with Jennifer just one more time. Roll over and tell her anything in the middle of the night.”
I guess the dead wife’s name was Jennifer then.
“I’m so sorry Richard,” Betty says, her hand warming his arm. Richard gets himself right. He pours more wine into their glasses. For a moment or two nobody says anything.
Then Betty says, “Richard?”
“Yeah?” he says with a sniffle.
“I don’t have to get the aldermen to break open your bedroom door?”
I look at her. Aldermen?
But it must be a joke, because Richard laughs and wipes his eyes clean and Betty’s smile grows with his laughter. I don’t get it and go back to eating.
I’m on my third helping. I was full after two. The conversation goes back to the club. Dinner’s over and Betty brings out cake and coffee. We all have. I like the cake. It’s coconut with vanilla glaze.
I say, “I love this cake.”
Richard asks me questions about stuff. Questions like a guy in a supermarket might ask.
“So what line of work you in, Eric?”
“I’m an entrepreneur,” I say.
“Very cool,” replies Richard.
“He’s in-between jobs right now,” says Betty.
“I wanted to work for myself,” I say.
“You know we’re actually looking for people at work. It’s an entry-level job, but it pays well enough. Plus you’ll learn a lot about advertising. You might find it interesting,” he adds not getting the vibe he wants out of me.
“That would great,” says Betty enthused.
“Thanks, but I’m not that into advertising. Not that it’s not a good field. Just wouldn’t even know where to begin,” I say.
There’s nothing like being your own boss. It takes a certain kind of person do be able to do it and I don’t think Richard would have what it takes.
We finish eating. Richard helps clear. I invite him to watch the Bulls game. He declines. I take another Blue Moon, grab a bag of pretzels and head to the den. They continue talking and I turn up the volume. I watch the first half. Cozy up under the blanket, flipping the channels during the commercial to catch part of the Hangover. I’ve seen it nearly five times, but I laugh all the same.
They’re speaking louder. Excited by something. Betty’s laughing and Richard’s talking. I lower the volume. The game’s not a good one anyway.
I hear Betty say, “I got your copy for you it’s upstairs. I think it should be a fun read. A lot lighter than the last couple. The Jane Austen Book Club?”
“I’ve heard of it,” says Richard. “My favorite book, believe it or not, is Pride and Prejudice.”
“Mine too! Come with me, I’ll get your copy,” says Betty.
I turn the volume back up. They walk by the den. Out the doorway I see them on the staircase. The hallway light is on the frits, darting here and there. They have their wine glasses and they’re talking. One hand on the rail, Betty’s twisting her body backwards on the second step. Richard, still taller than her even in her heels, is following after. They’re not in a rush. Each step is in unison, slow boxy steps. Betty’s head tilting slightly forward, smiling something to him.
I can see cracks in the foundation of her makeup. Under the flickering bulb, it all looks caked on. I don’t recognize her face. They continue in this fashion up the stairs. I return to not watching the game. Every now and then I hear Betty burst out in foreign laughter—the type of laugher where a hand meets an arm.
I think about the story they discussed over dinner and the anonymous person copying Betty and Eric’s addresses to the chain—their names side by side, nesting between their community members. And then I realized! that anonymous man, he’s a city planner. He’s building houses in that “To” line—homes even. And that’s where they are right now. They’ve relocated there. A city planner. Now, there’s a job that worth doing. And for a moment I wanted to hit reply-all!
But then again I wouldn’t know what to write. I didn’t even read that Faulkner fellow’s love tale. Betty laughs again.
I look down at the coffee table. My Blue Moon’s made a ring. I pick it up and pull over a coaster. Bulls are down twenty and I turn the television off. I fold the blanket and put it back neatly. I fold the top of the pretzel bag, too, so they won’t get stale.
I leave the room and look back. It’s tidy. I get my coat from the hall closest and grab a scarf. They’re at the top of the stairs when I reach the door. Betty’s holding her book and smiling that smile.
“Where you going?” she asks.
“I’m gonna stretch my legs. Dinner was delicious, thank you,” I say, and head out.
I stand on the stoop, looking up at the heavens. It’s chilly outside. I can see my breath, like the thin mist of clouds gently masking tonight’s moon. She’s ducked her face behind a grapefruit bin, I think to myself, and switch over to the stars instead. They’re bright and shine through.
I fix in on the brightest one—way off in the distance.
It must be lonely.