“Service is awfully slow in this place.” The waiter was nowhere to be seen. He had been nowhere to be seen since he brought the two coffees. “They really don’t want to grow their business, do they?” I pulled out a pack of cigarettes and searched for my lighter. I flicked the wheel and realized what I was about to do. Sam sat across from me at the bistro table and he had turned green. My friend was trying to quit, hadn’t touched a cig for I don’t know how long, and I was dangling the cancer stick right under his nose. “Damn, so sorry man.” I shoved the offending stuff back in my pocket. “How’re you holding up?”
“Some days are better than others.”
Yeah, right. And if you believe that, I’ll tell you another one. Sam’s hands were under the table, doing I don’t know what, but it seemed painful. I did not imagine the thin coat of sweat that had formed on his forehead. The poor sod must be going through hell 24/7. I almost begged him to have one; it was so uncomfortable watching him.
“Tell you what, I’ll go in there and get us some real drinks,” I said. “What do you want? I’ll have a scotch.”
“Same. Make it a double.”
“That’s my boy! Kick one sin out the door, invite another in!” Poor choice of words but I’d do anything to make him smile. When he told me he was going cold turkey – why prolong the suffering, hit it hard and decisively, get it over with, and all that – I understood. Two packs a day was way too much. He wheezed going up the stairs of the courthouse. Not yet thirty and the lung capacity of a raccoon. And he had the matching black bags under the eyes.
A waiter hovered near the bar inside.
“Could we have two double scotch and soda? Our waiter vanished.”
“Coming right up.”
He slipped behind the bar to make the drinks. Had the bartender gone missing too? This was turning into a funny skit. Or an episode of The Twilight Zone. I pictured the café as a portal. Aliens were beaming up the waitstaff one by one. Soon they would nab the patrons. I should tell Sam. It might get a chuckle out of him.
“I’ll bring the stuff out,” the waiter-bartender said. “Nuts or pretzels? Oh, forget it, I’ll bring both. Sorry for the wait. We’re short-handed.”
They were not mobbed by customers either. When I walked back to our table, I saw that we had company. A young couple occupied a table nearby.
“You took your sweet time,” Sam said.
There was no mistaking that tone of voice. He suspected I sneaked out the back for a quick one. “I watched the guy pour the drinks. Sometimes, when you stare at them they’re more generous.” I leaned back in my chair. Murmurs emanated from the next table. “Doesn’t young love make you feel old?”
“The girl looks a bit like Sarah,” Sam said.
I took it right in the chest. Sarah and I broke up six months ago, and I was still raw. “She’s shorter.” I could not say her name aloud. Would not.
“How can you tell? She’s seated.”
“The legs. I’m good with legs. And the heels. She’s practically on stilts. A tall girl would never wear heels like that. Unless she’s dating a basketball player.”
The waiter appeared with the drinks and snacks and took aim at the young couple’s table to take their order. Two glasses of white wine.
“That confirms it,” Sam said. “I know, without a shadow of a doubt, what’s going to happen next. Remember the jury selection on the Jarvis mock trial? I nailed every single juror. And the alternates.”
“You still lost the case.” It had been an epic battle but I came out on top.
“Because I had to prosecute. That’s your turf. I’m a born defender.”
“Public defender, you pathetic shmuck.”
“Whatever. You won’t throw me. In court I’m on the side of the angels. My righteousness is my shield.”
I raised my glass in salute. Sam seemed to have put his troubles aside for a moment. The young couple distracted him.
“The dude is going to propose. He’s been checking his jacket pocket every ten seconds.”
It was a good call. The guy’s mellow cocker eyes, the pink in the girl’s cheeks. The way she tilted her head, as if her long slender neck couldn’t support its weight, reminded me of Sarah. I finished my drink in one long swallow. I needed the burn.
“Alright, genius, what’s the color of the ring box?”
“How would I know?” Sam said, between sips of scotch. “Something proper, I assume. A ‘B’ color: blue, black, burgundy.”
Sam burst out laughing and snorted whisky. I handed him one of my monogrammed hankies. It was good to see him laugh. I was glad he still knew how.
The young man at the neighboring table went down on one knee and took the girl’s hand in both of his.
“Another one bites the dust.” I hummed. “And another one gone.”
“Don’t be like that. They’re cute together.” Sam blew his nose and checked the snot on the hankie. “I hope she says yes.”
I shrugged. “Of course she’ll say yes. This thing is more scripted than the Sunday Mass. I like that she doesn’t pretend to be surprised.”
The future groom retrieved the box from his pocket, opened it with a naïve flourish to flash the ring.
Sam had the color wrong. The box was bright red.
M.E. Proctor (she, her) is currently writing a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in All Worlds Wayfarer, Bristol Noir, Tilde, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, The Bookends Review, The Blue Nib, Fiction on the Web, and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas. Twitter: @MEProctor3