Death with French Bread
by Chris Sharp
He raised his glass to a place over the table that exactly saluted the space between her marble-brown eyes.
"A toast," he said, "to you and I and the kids."
"Here, here," said Chase. She lifted her tulip glass of house burgundy until it pulled off a silent touch of the other one. "To Ronnie for coming here, and to the spirit of this adventure."
Ronnie nodded a kind of salute before he sipped his wine. "It was both of our ideas, don't you think?"
"Oh, I guess I really wanted to see how this works out."
"There you go. You, too."
Their throw-back waxy-haired waiter came, with a tray of long flatware and ice-water and silky menus that looked as if they had been found in a museum. The waiter was extremely happy -- even showing most of his teeth to them -- to see Chase and Ronnie at Le Repast together again.
"So," said Ronnie, after taking a cursory look at the menu. His eyes rested on Chase's once again. "Does this remind you of days of yore, Chase?"
Chase continued to look at the menu, not because it interested her that much, but she needed to set herself before she looked at his face again.
Finally she met his eyes. "Yes," she said. "It makes me think of the old days."
They had first dined in this chateau-faced eatery as undergraduates in the neighborhood state university. So long ago. Ronnie figured they had shared a half dozen dinners there. Chase thought it was more like ten true dates. Since the whole experience was about thirty years old, they decided the real issue about their memories wasn't their quantity but quality.
They had originally chosen Le Repast because they had assumed this traditional French restaurant wouldn't endure the fickle trends of their California beach-town. At the time, dumping all of their student pocket money into dinner seemed a bargain. It was so exotic to find an haute cuisine evening amidst the surfing outside. Fortunately for the town, someone in the French family ownership had been found to take over the place until this day.
Chase and Ronnie were sitting at the replica sedimentary hearth of Louis XV -- they called him "Louie Cans" -- a special place that emboldened their first Repast dinner. It was the only place in town where the French students could actually use their lessons in real life. Since the French did nothing without being aphrodisiacal, Le Repast had been sought over the years by both townies and students to test bonds that had been trustfully tied.
"There they are," said Ronnie, looking past Chase into the adjoining dinner space, called The Versailles Room.
"What a lady and what a gentleman." Chase turned to watch.
"I have a pretty good view from this seat, so I can look at you at the same time I'm watching them."
"But I'm not going to rely on your play-by-play." Chase was still turned to the Versailles Room.
"Remember at that age, just around the legal drinking age, my daughter and your son have all kinds of radar for being watched and reviewed by their surrounding society."
"Okay," said Chase. She turned back to the waiter as a practically flat bowl of vichyssoise, its white onion and potato foundation as extreme as its green adornments, was served. "They're measuring each other," she said, touching her spoon. "My son seating your daughter, Rachelle graciously being led by the hand, the waiter looking offended to be left out."
"Remember all that stuff."
"I feel like such an old fool," said Chase, looking at her soup as she spoke, "catching a peek at myself when I was so young and so alive, looking at things all over again though my little boy Michael."
"No fair. No getting melancholy at this place."
"Who said I was getting stupid melancholy?" Chase took the first taste of her starter. "I don't get stupid melancholy."
The two young people next door were still talking to the waiter who was tapered up to his neck in his white shirt and black bow tie.
"From my lip reading, I can tell your son is speaking French now," said Ronnie, buttering his flakey bread.
"It's their time to be together now." Chase met Ronnie's eyes on that one.
"We all share time to be together, Chase."
"In what way do we all share time?"
"I don't know. But do you think we do without knowing?"
Chase closed her eyes and laughed.
As Ronnie ate his warm French bread, he made wrinkly expressions until his forehead told Chase how good it was, the bread, the restaurant, their children growing up and being spied on by their old parents in the next room. At the same time, Chase was finishing her wine in straight swallows.
"Ah," she said. "Then why don't we call this our time, too?"
"Otherwise, we're only living through our little kids," she went on. "Waiter, bring me a dopey bottle of the house burgundy, s'il vous plait."
"Allons," she said, as she tried to drink wine that had already left her empty glass.
"Would you like to change seats, Chase?" Ronnie looked intently into her face. "That way, you can watch the kids, and I can just focus on you right now."
"Is that a promise to focus on me, Ronnie?" she said, as she rose to trade seats.
It took less than 10 seconds to reverse themselves at their table, even with Chase stumbling on the go.
At her first dinner at Le Repast, or at any French restaurant, Rachelle was getting more clueless about where to put her hands. It was one thing to put her hand on the table. It was something else to put her hands under the tablecloth, where they might be protected like snipers.
Michael, who was supposed to be her host for the lunch, wasn't giving her any of the cues she had expected in this heightened representation of Paris. After all, she reminded herself, Michael had been at this restaurant before with various babes. On the other hand, she told herself, I'm no babe.
The last instructional thing he had told her was that eating at this restaurant was an expository experience. She knew what that kind of expression generally meant, something about being less informed than the word master himself, but to get the most mileage out of this "expository" for the purpose of the lunch, she studied the word's meanings in a dictionary.
Basically, she concluded, she had been brought here by Michael to expose herself in the restaurant's wall-to-wall light.
She came to dinner wondering how much she would have to show herself in the intervals between being served. To allow the patrons to discover each other, the waiters might take a quarter of an hour between courses. This was the reason why Le Repast advertised on the radio as a place to start a romance. Plus there was all that French light that allowed no telltale manly or womanly expression to hide in any shadow.
The dinner started awkwardly with Michael and the waiter holding their own discussion in French. At last Rachelle clutched her menu for buoyancy amid a sea of spoken French that offered her no passage. So anyway, she thought, looking at all this French filler floating by her senselessly, anyway, if I bring my hands above the table it will expose my nerves. If I drop them below I am proclaiming feminine mystique from the rooftops.
Michael seemed only too happy for her silence, as her blankness offered him a grid to record his own endless talk. It seemed he was speaking about everything except what to do in a French restaurant. He spoke about his past friendship with a U.S. congressman. He talked about practicing for an Olympic Gold Medal in some kind of obscure rowing and shooting game that only a handful of Americans had ever practiced. Then he spoke about how he had brought the Le Repast experience to Madame Melanie, the most famed psychic in town, to help him cope with his mother's death after her terrible car accident.
Rachelle, clearly startling him by saying anything, wanted to try eating a snail.
"But of course. Escargot. How delicious."
The question was how you ate one.
He told her about their natural shell packaging, adding, "they're like oysters in your mouth, covered in garlic butter."
She had never eaten an oyster either.
She looked at him as he chattered away.
"But you're not as helpless as a snail," he assured her.
Next he rescued her from her conversational shortcomings by changing the subject to his fishing trips.
All the time Michael gave his talk, Rachelle became increasingly aware of being watched by people. That was the real advantage of being a woman at a time like this, she thought, when intuition was being so ignored.
A soft glow had been coming from the next room. Rachelle was feeling that somehow she was being spied on. As Michael continued to talk, she went ahead with a little investigation. Almost at once, she decided their spies had to be the couple sitting by the old stone fireplace. When she looked suddenly in their direction, both the man and the woman in that spot put down their glasses of wine.
"So what do you think about Mexico?" Michael asked her.
She coughed quietly on her water.
"Three days, and we can discover Rosario. I'll be good. Down the road I have to show you my Olympic rowing."
Where was this coming from?
"Take a little escape. My dear Rachelle."
Boy oh boy, she thought. "I hardly even know you, Michael."
"Yes, you do. You know old Michael."
She looked back at the other room, and then she caught the woman at the fireplace staring right at her face. Too quickly, the woman turned around to her companion.
"If my memory doesn't fail me," said Michael, "haven't we known each other since we were children?"
"No, it was only our parents who knew each other."
"You got that right," Michael went on. "It was Ronnie and Chase, the big item in all the gossip grapevines."
"This place is where they used to eat together, decades ago, you know."
In fact, it was not a happy story.
Not only that her father died, but he died with Chase's name on his breath.
"Rachelle, remember, my mom died a lot earlier. Stuff happens, and a lot of it is pretty sad. But here we have French food to make us happy again."
Rachelle's mother couldn't face the fact that he was saying Chase's name in the end. It was like losing a husband twice on one nightmarish night.
"I've always thought Chase appeared to him. Made him drive off the road. That's a thought. Like she was a ghost."
He seemed to believe that thought was funny.
She pushed her chair back and stood.
"I'm sorry, my poor mademoiselle. Sorry to open Pandora's Boxes. I'll be good from now on."
She opened her purse, to give him some money for her order.
But the pure pressure of being watched seemed to forcefully turn her around. She caught what looked like surprised looks on the faces of the man and the woman at the fireplace. Once again, too quickly they both looked away.
Michael squinted into the other room at her question. "No, I've never seen them before."
"Have you noticed," Rachelle said, "they've been watching everything we've said and done here?"
"How rude. Let me tell the waiter. Garçon!"
The waiter and Michael then went into what seemed like an endless discussion in French, and at the end, they both laughed.
"Our waiter said the other room has often before thought to be haunted," said Michael to the rock-still Rachelle. "But Charles will be happy to move us to another table out of everyone's sight and make things right in the next room."
Rachelle felt too much like a stone to ask a good question.
"What next room?" she asked Michael.
"Charles calls it," said Michael, "the living room."
© 2010 Chris Sharp
Bio: .Chris Sharp graduated from Fresno State University in 1997. In 2003, he won the West 35th Street Award for best new fiction by Crimestalkers.com. Between stories, he is a public school teacher at the Menifee School District in Riverside County, CA. Chris's most recent appearance in Aphelion was The Quiet Woman in the September / October 2010 issue.
E-mail: Chris Sharp
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.