Beryl Haise carefully extracted the last Marlboro from the cardboard pack and placed it on the table in front of her. Gently, she moved it to the middle of the place setting where the afternoon sunlight would best illuminate it. She stared at it fixedly. Xavier Cugat’s “Mambo No. 5” played on the jukebox.
Across the table, her friend Fisher Pinckney exhaled a thin stream of blue smoke and said “You know, Beryl, one of these days computers are going to get more complicated than women. Geeks like me will have to get a girl for relief.”
Disregarding this, Beryl said, “I can’t believe that bitch made fun of my accent. What does that have to do with the food?” She turned the cigarette so its long axis went left to right, perpendicular to the silverware. She shook her head slightly and rotated the cigarette back to its original position. It was a battered specimen of its race.
Fisher said, “Don’t worry about that woman. She’s bitter. She’s got nothing better to do with her time.” She continued to stare unhappily at the cigarette. He said, “How long are you going to keep torturing that poor old cigarette? Didn’t you quit in September?”
“I love this cigarette,” Beryl replied languidly. “I love it more than my TV, more than my little Toyota. More than at least three of the last four guys I’ve dated.” She paused briefly. “Actually, more than all of them if I don’t hear from Don before Thursday.”
“Does it count as a cigarette break if you just sit here and touch it for five minutes?”
From the other end of the bar, Cooper the bartender called out quietly “Pascal’s here. He doesn’t look happy.”
Beryl stood up quickly and brushed the wrinkles out of her apron. She put the cigarette back into its crumpled box, thence into the apron pocket. Pascal Faisani walked past, his face dark and self-absorbed, without acknowledging them. The jukebox band sang happily: “Ay-ay-ay Mambo, Ay-ay-ay!”. Pascal closed the door to his office with a thump.
Cooper gave a small grin and walked over to them: “It must be that review. He’s pissed. Now I’ll be mixing him martinis all afternoon.” Fisher Pinckney chuckled. His beer was almost empty, but he tipped the Corona bottle up one last time to avoid looking at Beryl.
She rolled her eyes and said, “Oh right. Like I was supposed to know she was a restaurant critic.”
“Wasn’t she talking into one of those little tape recorders?” asked Fisher.
“I wish I hadn’t told you that, Fisher. Anyway, it’s an old trick to intimidate the wait staff. And it doesn’t work with me.”
Pascal’s voice sounded from his office: “Cooper! I need a martini, and I need it now.”
As Beryl left with martini in hand, Fisher said, “Well, it’s their loss. I love the new modern primitive menu.” He examined the big colorful chalkboard menu on the wall. “I mean, look at this: Pierced Duck a L’Orange. Scarified Game Hen. Here’s my favorite: Chicken Breast Tattooed with Squid Ink. Very high concept. A menu like this makes a statement. What was the one she really went off on?”
Cooper squinted as he consulted the rumpled newsprint on the counter top. “The Free Range Baloney Sandwich. Here’s a good quote: ‘The new menu at the Scarf and Bolt exercises all possible meanings of the word tasteless,’ close quote.” He looked up from the paper and added, with gravity, “The Free Range Baloney IS an acquired taste. I only wish she’d had the Corsetted Loin of Pork instead.”
“Pig-in-a-Corset? I like that too,” said Fisher. He hesitated. “Beryl didn’t really say anything rude to that woman, did she?”
“Naah, I don’t think so. But she’s not telling us everything. I think they knew each other. Anyway, it’s just a dumb throw-away rag. Hell, it might even improve business. After a couple martinis, Pascal will be back in high spirits again.”
They both looked up expectantly when they heard Pascal’s office door opening. Beryl walked back slowly, looking shaken. She gave no indication of what she had learned until she sat down next to them.
“She’s dead,” said Beryl finally, still amazed by the news.
“Good lord!” cried Cooper “Was it our food? What happened?”
“No, apparently it was heart failure. That review was the last thing she ever wrote. They found her in her kitchen face down in a plate of Vienna sausages.”
They all stopped and considered the significance of this new development. Fisher gave a low can-you-believe-it whistle and said, sotto voce, “Now THAT’s tacky.”
Moving quickly, Beryl reached into her apron pocket for a lighter and her cherished cigarette. She lit up and took in a long sweet hot pungent drag. The loving white smoke curled through her lungs, warmed her throat. And by god, it satisfied as so few things do. It did just what she asked; it provided just what she needed. It loved and accepted her. It bore her no malice for the long, long wait. How kind and forgiving the first cigarette! The other cigarettes she would come to hate soon enough. But she knew all along she was right to love this one.
Fisher asked, “How long this time?”
She smiled a crooked smile and leaned back against the bar. “Six weeks, three days.”