THIS IS A WORK OF ORIGINAL FICTION
It will be serialized over the next several days…the ending will be marked in the classic styling…
Joy unloaded her reusable grocery sacks and catalogged the most decadent meal she’d ever planned for a client: baby spinach and artichoke crostini, and grilled mini-crab cakes with remoulade sauce for appetizers; a smooth, butternut squash soup; a fresh caprese salad; sear-roasted filet mignon with chive butter and bacon, asparagus with hollandaise, and potatoes au gratin. Then, she’d make a palette cleansing strawberry-watermelon granita followed by two luscious desserts: tres leches cake, and milk and dark chocolate marbled brownies.
It was international fare with no theme in particular, other than it was the best menu at each course she had to offer to someone who had never really been out to enjoy fine dining. She swallowed hard, hoping Marty wouldn’t be irate with her at her initial food billing when she met with him in a half an hour. She was admittedly skittish about more than just her ‘money-is-no-object’ spending (which he had given her the go ahead on). She always felt a bit tentative about meeting a client for the first time, but with Marty, there was a bit of an extra edge. She loved the idea of a son so lavishly treating his parents, and the few times she’d spoken with him, she adored his easy humor. And she knew he was single. ‘We aren’t even bringing dates. So…’
Joy hadn’t had a date in years, and dating had been rough since right after high school. The world of cooking for a living, whether in restaurants or on her own, dictated she work most nights and every weekend, when anyone else could partake in the luxury dining services she provided, which eliminated most conventional dating ideas. When she was a part of the restaurant scene, she was also surrounded by stereotypically macho, misogynistic men she was disinterested in dating anyway, and never left the kitchen to meet any actual palatable patrons. Nearly exclusively, the men she associated with now through work were already in committed relationships; it was the very reason her services were ever required. Marty was unique. As she strode briskly through the door of her favorite diner to meet him, she took a few cleansing deep breaths to calm herself. She had no idea how to spot him. She told him she’d be the one in the white apron so he would recognize her. She frequently left home in an apron to shop and grab lunch at this diner alone, but had never met a client at a neutral location before. She’d previously always met in their home. Again, this request from Martin was unique. He wanted to win her trust by meeting in a public place first, which she found thoughtful and kind.
“Joy?” his familiar soft, deep voice asked as she rounded the corner to face the limited seating away from the bar, and she reflexively smiled at him.
“It’s nice to finally put a face to the voice, Marty,” she replied, extending her right hand to him in greeting. She hoped the genuine decency in his eyes wouldn’t fade once she began talking about money.
“Indeed,” he said, a little too zealously, perhaps. ‘Steve didn’t mention that she was HOT…’
“Well, now comes the worst part of my job,” she began, looking almost guilty as she slid her receipts and planned menu across the table to him when they both took seats opposing one another.
“It’s a little over $330,” he stated, surprised, but not in a negative way, which confused her. She was waiting for outrage.
“Yeah…I know it’s a lot, but…”
“No ‘buts!’ I mean, it is a lot, but look at all this!” His eyes actually welled up, which shocked her, and she rushed to comfort him. She’d worked with men preparing retirement, birthday, and anniversary celebrations, and proposals for their significant others fairly regularly, and they were always a touch more emotional than what she guessed their ‘normal’ was. But the only other time she worked with a male client that cried was planning a dinner for his wife who’d gone into cancer remission after her last chemo treatment. She’d never had any client cry over the initial food charges.
“I know I went a little overboard, and I’m sorry. I just…I guess I can’t handle all the liberty after so much fencing myself in. It’s like when you get caught in traffic and then it opens up, so you just hit the gas and do like ninety…” He furiously blinked, looking up to keep the brimming tears from falling, and, realizing her apology wasn’t correcting the problem, she became more direct (and perhaps desperate). “Oh, my, Marty. Please don’t cry. I’m a sympathetic crier, and if you cry, I’ll…” It was too late. Her eyes had already begun to water. “I-I-I can return some of it. Six courses is a lot. You can choose the soup or the salad. Two desserts aren’t necessary…and I can cut the crab appetizer. I can make pork tenderloin instead of filet…just as elegant, probably half the cost…” She sniffed, and wiped her eyes with her shirt sleeve.
“No, Joy…it’s not the bill.” He wiped his own eyes with the heel of his left hand, and reached across the table to touch her hand with his right, which startled her, but she quickly sank into a compatible contentment with the gesture. “Don’t you cry. I’m not upset. I’m impressed. Keep all of this. This menu is…incredible. It’s a bargain, really.”
“You really couldn’t take a family of five to a restaurant for this meal at my price,” she assured him, not in a defensive way, but rather to reinforce his good, unlikely frugal decision.
“I know I couldn’t. But it’s not even the money. I’m sorry I got…emotional, it’s just…you don’t know what this will mean to my folks. Dad wants to take Mom out for fancy dinners, and…he wants to take her to Africa and Europe and Rio and the Caribbean and Asia. He wants to throw her a big party, and invite everyone she ever cared about at all, and dance with her to some Commodores’ love song, and dip her under a spotlight, but he just…can’t. They’ve never done or had anything like this before. This kind of…high living. Dad just isn’t able to…and you…you can give them this. Without toppling his world over. Thank you so much.”
She turned her hand palm up and held his hand, which he was receptive to. “It’s my pleasure, Marty. D-do you want me to g-go now?”
“No.” He didn’t let go of her hand, which unpredictably gladdened her.
“Would you still like to have lunch?”
“Absolutely. Surprised a chef who can make…this,” he said, glancing with awe at the receipts again, “would choose a place like…this,” he continued, moving his eyes around the greasy spoon they sat in.
“Guilty pleasure?” she giggled, and his body language visibly relaxed as she laughed.
“What do you get here?”
“Pancakes and maple-sausage.”
“Rules about which foods can be eaten at which times are completely arbitrary, y’know.”
“Dad is gonna love you,” he chuckled.
“Okay…?” She squinted befuddlement at him. She wanted to know why his father would like her, and why he felt compelled to say it out loud, and why it so pleased her that he’d said it out loud.
“He likes folks that march to their own drummer. Being a conformist accountant, I’m a colossal disappointment to him.”
“Somehow I doubt he considers you a colossal disappointment,” she snickered. “How did…or does he make a living?”
“He’s a writer.”
“Interesting. I guess that’s a nice career for an agoraphobic person. Tough to get published though. Long odds.”
“Dad beat ’em.”
“Has he written anything I may have read?”
“You can’t be all mysterious and intriguing like this. ‘Assuredly?!’ It’s literal torture to leave it at that,” she playfully snapped.
“Can you be trusted?”
“I would hope so. You’re inviting me to your home…or your parents’ home…?”
“It’s my apartment. Dad can go to my place…”
“Well…there you go. And I’m cooking food for your entire family…”
“Dad is…private to the point of being reclusive. Notoriously reclusive. So discretion is extremely important. It would probably serve your business well to advertise you cooked for him. But you can’t. Not because I wanna hurt your business. I mean, Steve said…I wish I could market for you in that big of a way, but Dad’s health and sanity are…fragile. You’ll know what he looks like. You’ll know he’s local. It’s a big deal to him…”
“My lips are sealed. I promise.”
“He’s Clayton Reese.”
Joy gasped and her eyes widened in disbelief, but she remained silent. She was going to cook for the author of her favorite book from college, a man no one knew much about, other than the hauntingly poetic words he put to the page. And for his son, on whom she had now developed a raging, unrepentant crush. She involuntarily tightened her grip on his fingers, and he smirked at her soundless astonishment. The lunch shift waitress walked up to their table and knowingly grinned at her favorite regular customer, holding hands and looking amusedly staggered with an attractive man. “What can I get for you and your…company, Joy?”
“Two orders of pancakes and maple-sausage,” Marty answered, smiling wide now. Joy just nodded in speechless agreement.