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…
Dinner for the Reese family went well. All five family members openly raved about the delicious meal Joy made, even Mr. Reese, who insisted she call him ‘Clay,’ after she called him ‘Sir.’
“This is hands down the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. No offense, sweetheart,” Clayton had said to his wife before kissing her on the cheek.
“None taken!” Marty’s mother, Paula, exclaimed, laughing.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Sir?! No, ma’am. It’s Clay.”
“Alright, Clay…S-Sir.” He’d chuckled at her inability to curb her habitual formal respect. She chatted with him about the previously unnoted similarities between writing and cooking, and how good it felt to create something that brought other people fulfillment, even when they were removed from it a degree.
Marty slipped into the kitchen a few times to admire Joy’s work and quietly exchange a few thoughts.
“Your dad seems alright to me. Y’know…friendly, funny, social. He’s a lot like you,” she relayed, hoping he’d take her words as the compliment she meant them as.
“This is a rarity. Believe me. He normally refuses to answer the door for pizza delivery. I’m actually stunned he’s so…” He trailed off and shook his head at her with pronounced gratitude. “Thank you again for making this happen for them,” Marty said as he handed over her check, right before she slipped out the door as the festivities wound down.
“Like I said, my pleasure. Thank you for letting me meet the man who wrote Tripwires. I mean…every person I know has read that book and loved it, and no one knows…I’ll never out him, Marty.”
“I know.” He silently smiled at her as she walked away. He’d written the check for four hundred dollars more than they’d agreed upon. The check had a post-it note stuck to the back on which he’d written, ‘Consider it a bonus…Dad really took to you.’ She thought she and Marty had something…a spark…a connection…but she hadn’t heard from him in the three weeks since dinner, and finally resigned that he was just another client, satisfied but removed, except for perhaps a little future word-of-mouth business, and her perceived union was just another wishful delusion.
“Touring Table. This is Joy. How can I help you today?”
“I’m planning another special dinner. This time, just for two,” the recognizable voice said.
“Great,” she replied to Marty, trying to sound upbeat and enthusiastic, but hiding flagrant rejection. He liked her food. Enough to ask her to make it for him on a date with some other lucky woman. “What kinda money am I working with for you?”
“I’d like to keep the food under $100, but I could still use lots of help with the menu. If we go over that…well, so be it.”
“Alright. Lots of restriction this time?”
“No. Just…I mean, what would you want a date meal to consist of?”
“Depends. On what kind of date it is…what the other date plans are, if there are any…what your date can’t or doesn’t want to have…what they’d be impressed by…extravagance? Simplicity? Richness? Health? Creativity? Something exotic? A bunch of variables…”
“What are you impressed by?”
“I’m the wrong girl to ask…I like diner food…”
“Okay. Diner food. Guy knows you like diner food, so he tries to cook something diner-inspired for you. What’s he make to get the best reaction?”
“Cheeseburgers. Maybe with jack and colby cheese instead of cheddar or American. Fried egg with a runny yolk on top. Butter lettuce and heirloom tomatoes and maybe a tangy-sweet mayo on a brioche bun…or maybe a pretzel or salted rye bun. Sweet potato fries with honey dijon mustard. Apple pie and strawberry ice cream…”
“There’s your menu right there.”
“That comes in at way under $100 for two people.”
“My good luck, then. Just take some photos and invoice me the receipts. I’ll Paypal you the deposit Tuesday. See you Saturday night? Plan to eat at seven, so…be there around six?”
“Yeah. I’ll see you then,” she said, weighed down by melancholy for the first time at receiving repeat business. He didn’t even want to meet her for lunch to pay the grocery bill this time.
She arrived promptly at six, and, now familiar with his kitchen, wordlessly seared the meat and heated the fry oil for her finely julienned sweet potatoes. She diced four apples and began softening them in butter and brown sugar, adding a tablespoon of corn starch as a thickener, concentrating solely on making quality food and fading into the background, working distinctly hard to view him as ‘just another client.’
“It’d be easier to get your filling from a can,” Marty tried to tease her from the opening between his kitchen and expansive, undefined living space, and she offered him a stiff smile that was obviously placating and false.
He looked composed and casual, not like a man expecting a date to arrive, particularly one he’d hired a chef to prepare a meal for, even if it was only cheeseburgers and pie; it was elevated cheeseburgers and pie. She scoffed to herself about his attitude, which bordered on arrogance, in stark contrast to her previous interaction with him, and to his self-proclaimed ‘best friend,’ who’d passed her name along to Marty in the first place. She remembered when she’d cooked for Steve, he was a shaking wreck, waiting for his girlfriend to arrive, and the two of them had obviously been together for years. ‘Clearly, I’ve misjudged him. I know some men are different ‘dating’ than they are otherwise, but I didn’t think Marty was that kind of guy. Ugh.’ She continued diligently working her station like a consummate professional, attempting to convince herself this newly revealed side of him made him forfeit his former charm, but the next thought through her head was disobediently conciliatory. ‘He’s not proposing to her, apparently. At least it’s not THAT set in stone,’ she mused to herself. She sighed loudly, senselessly aggravated at him for hiring her for this and not just ‘knowing’ how she felt about him, for leading her on, and disgusted with herself for feeling any and all of those things. Her volume and expressive face elicited Marty to ask after her.
“Everything turning out okay?”
“It’s all perfect,” she replied. ‘Well, the FOOD is, anyway…’ She checked the clock on his microwave, and noticed that his scheduled serve time was less than ten minutes away. The cheese was tantalizingly melting on the burgers, the fries were dropped, and the pie was in the oven. She began to dress the brioche rolls, and said, “You aren’t being stood up, are you?”
“Nope,” he confidently stated. “She’ll be right on time.”
“So I can dress these and the bread won’t be a soggy mess? I mean, I toasted them for the right texture and extra flavor, and that makes them a little more hardy, but… Usually all the parties are here this close to ‘eat’ time. She didn’t come for a drink or anything ahead of pinpoint punctuality?”
“Would you like a drink?” he tardily offered, inwardly chastising himself for his gross lack of hospitality.
“Oh, no. I’m working. I shouldn’t…I mean, couldn’t…”
“No Guinness for you? Just me, then? You sure?” he asked, pulling one bottle of dark beer from his refrigerator and tapping the top of another with the door still ajar. She found it especially painful that he’d bought her favorite beer for this rendezvous he planned. It almost seemed intentional.
Marty devilishly smirked at how hurt she was nakedly becoming, and took it as an excellent sign his guess was correct. He’d remembered her telling his father Guinness was her favorite beer, and Marty had asked his buddy Aaron, the bartender, if it was a respectable choice to accompany a high-end cheeseburger…he got glowing approval.
She looked to the microwave time again, and, seeing it read 7:02, began breathing shallow, panicked, fearing her delicate sense of timing, which was commonly such a noticed asset, would mar her stellar reputation on this pass. “She’s late,” she spouted, obviously perturbed, at both the notion of her food being less than her best when it was served, and at this unknown woman who’d failed to show for Marty. ‘I can’t believe anyone would ditch Marty…she must be crazy…’
“Nah. She was way early. She’s been here since six.” He took the two most beautiful plates of ‘burgers and fries’ he’d ever seen and set them at two adjacent places at his dining table. “Want that beer now?”
“I had to book something to ensure I’d get a free Saturday night. I can deal with never having another one after this, so your business stays a success. If you ever even want to go out with me again after this. Promise…I’m not in the habit of using deception to get dates. Sorry for being sneaky. Forgive me?” he sheepishly asked, holding up her bottle of beer along with the bottle opener, motioning in question if he should open it or not. She nodded in affirmation, and he popped the cap for her before handing it over.
“I’m sorry. Figured this way, I’d at least get another nice meal with you, even if you thought I was a total creep. You don’t think that, right?”
“No. This is the most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for me…”
“Most romantic move ever is a guy making you come over and cook him dinner!? Hahaha! That is one low bar. Shit, if that’s the kind of lazy, selfish asses I’m competing with, I win!”
“Hahahahaha! You do!” she laughed, covering her mouth full of sloppy burger as she did. “It really doesn’t bother you to like…never go out at a normal time?”
“If the company is you…who cares about ‘normal?’ I kinda dig having pancakes and maple-sausage for Tuesday lunch.” She smiled at him, falling swiftly in love. “What’s that smile mean?”
“I’m pretty excited I get to eat all this food. I was insanely jealous of whoever it was you had coming over.”
“I could tell,” he mercilessly teased. “It was kind of cruel to have you make your own favorite foods and not tell you they were for you. Again…really am sorry…”
“Oh, I wasn’t jealous of the menu. I could go home and make this for myself before I went to bed…just thought you’d be holding some other woman’s hand across the table. Might kiss some other woman goodnight…”
He set his beer down, and leaned over to grasp the legs of her chair to pull her to him. She looked into his eyes with a hunger that had nothing to do with dinner, and had that same appetite reflected back to her. He ran his hands down her arms and kissed her. When he pulled back, he left her with a soft, astounded smile on her face, her eyes closed, and he couldn’t help but be filled with pride and throw some corny, playful praise her way. “Just ruined dessert…”
“Shit!” she shouted, naive to his underlying meaning, and partially rose from her seat to rush to check the baking pie. It didn’t smell overdone…the timer hadn’t sounded… He gently grabbed her wrist, impeding her hurry to the oven.
“I’m sure the pie is perfect, Joy. But there’s no way it tastes as sweet as your lips.”
“That tired line might make you a ‘colossal disappointment’ to your father, the famous writer,” she joked.
“It was a dreadfully tired line. I admit it. But that doesn’t make it untrue.”