"The secret," Carli said confidently, "is to ask them right away the name of their favorite song. It's a dead giveaway."
The bar was dimly lit and smoky, but fairly clean and not too crowded; too far out past the edge of town for that. We met there for drinks every couple weeks; we'd been doing that for years.
I smoothed my hair back behind my ears and studied her. She was pretty in a petite Brenda-Lee kind of way, hair a honey-blonde, and warm hazel eyes. Standing next to her always made me feel like an Amazon at five-foot-eight. "Oh, please," I replied. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"Well," she said, raising her eyebrows, "listen. I've been thinking about this, and I've finally pieced it all together. I looked for similarities in the men I've had relationships with, my own personal history, and this is what I've discovered. My first husband's favorite song was 'Love The One You're With'; guess why I divorced him?" She smirked. "Right. Then the next guy I fell in love with and dated for a long time -- his favorite was 'Hold On Loosely'. Guess why we broke up?" She looked toward the bar and held up two fingers when she caught the waitress's eye. "The next guy I was crazy about? Well, I use the word 'crazy' advisedly, because his favorite song was 'Every Breath You Take' -- the stalker's anthem. Second husband? 'I'm All Out of Love.' See a trend here? I'm not kidding. It never fails." She looked at me sternly. "Now I'm more selective. I never date a man I meet in a bar, and mostly I only date someone a friend or co-worker knows well and approves of."
A waitress deposited two Coors Lights on our table and said, "No charge for these, ladies. The gentleman at the bar sent them over."
I immediately looked toward where the waitress pointed and saw a tall, slim man sitting on a bar stool, wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt; the toes of his cowboy boots were hooked around the rungs. He was turned toward us, smiling. I smiled back and lifted my beer bottle in salute, mouthing a thank-you.
"For God's sake, don't encourage him!" she demanded. "He'll think we're inviting him to come over and sit with us."
The man slid off his stool and started across the floor.
"Oh, damn," she muttered. "Maybe when he sees that there's not another chair, he'll ..." Her voice trailed off as he took hold of a chair at a table near us and dragged it with him, deposited it halfway between us, and sat down.
"Ladies," he said.
"Hi," I responded, studying his face. It was a nice face -- kind of craggy with a day's growth of beard, dark hair trimmed neatly, ears unpierced, eyes clear and a startling shade of blue. No visible scars or tattoos. Smelled good, too -- fresh and clean -- no heavy cologne. "I'm Leddie." I turned toward Carli, but before I could introduce her, she shook her head at me. "Thanks for the beers."
"My pleasure," he said, nodding and smiling at Carli, too.
She reached down for her purse and started to get up. "Actually, we were just leaving." She gave me a sideways glance, and I knew that she expected me to go with her.
Stubbornly, I ignored her. "I'm not."
She blushed, and I knew she was angry, but I didn't care. It had been a long time since I'd had a date, and this guy offered possibilities.
"Leddie, could I speak with you for a moment?" she asked, standing her ground.
"Sure," I responded meanly. "Go ahead." I did not get up.
"Outside?" Her eyebrows were drawn down and made a crease on either side of the bridge of her nose, an expression she usually avoided for just that very reason.
I sighed, excused myself from the flannel-clad man, and followed her just outside the door of the bar. The bug light over the door snapped and crackled as it decimated a variety of nighttime airborne critters.
"What do you think you're doing?" she asked, putting her hand on my right arm.
I shrugged it off. "I'm planning to have a drink or two with the cowboy and then go home."
"Uh-huh," she sneered. "I know better. I saw the way you smiled at him." Her expression now turned to one of concern. "I wish you'd leave with me now. Do you plan to let him drive you home?"
"Either that or get a cab," I answered easily. "I'm not 18, and you're not my mother. Get off my ass." I turned to go back in the door, and I thought I heard her say, "You know you'll be sorry," but I left her on the stoop anyway.
When I rejoined the man at the table, I asked, "So what's your name, and are your intentions honorable?"
He laughed. "As honorable as a Boy Scout's." He leaned a little toward me. "And my name is Frank."
I stuck out my right hand. "Well, hi, Frank. Are you a real cowboy, or are the boots and the big belt buckle just for show?"
Laughing again, he answered, "Well, I'm not a real cowboy, but this isn't for show. It's just comfortable. The belt buckle was my dad's; believe it or not, he followed the rodeo circuit for a long time when he was a young man."
"No kidding?" I replied, intrigued.
"No kidding. You know how in all the old westerns, the highest praise for a cowboy was to say he died with his boots on?" He shrugged. "That was my dad."
"Oh, I'm sorry," I commiserated.
"He's been gone a long time. This buckle is about the only thing he owned when he died. The circuit broke him, and then it killed him." He drew a face in the condensation on the table.
I didn't know what to say, and I said so. "I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say."
"'S all right," he answered and smiled at me. "I guess I wear this stuff to remember him by." He lifted his shoulders and let them drop. "What about you?"
"What about me?" I asked, truly not sure what he was asking.
"Well, you've told me your name, and that's all I know about you, except that your friend was mad at you for not leaving with her. What was that all about?"
"She's just overprotective. She's had some bad experiences, and so she's a little paranoid about men right now. Give her a month, and she'll be involved in yet another disastrous relationship." I immediately felt traitorous for belittling Carli. I promised myself I'd call her tomorrow and try to soothe her hurt feelings.
"Tell me about yourself."
"Let's see. I'm a Pisces, I like old black and white movies, especially with Humphrey Bogart, I loathe exercise, and pizza is my favorite food. I was raised in Eastern Tennessee and spent years trying to rid myself of the accent, both my parents are dead, and I have no siblings. How'm I doin' so far?"
"Well, that would make a nice blurb in a singles ad, but it doesn't reveal much about your real life. What do you do for a living?"
"Not much, really. I work a couple of days a week for a nonprofit -- the Byrdtown Humane Association, and the rest of the time I write."
"Short stories mostly, but yeah, I'm working on my first novel." I nodded.
He studied my face carefully for a moment before he responded. "No kidding."
"No kidding." I felt heat in my face and neck, but I returned his steady gaze. "Short stories, poems, book reviews and a column for a small newspaper -- the Centennial Review here in town. Working on the novel in between, but it seems like it'll never be finished."
"Well!" he exclaimed. "I'm impressed."
"Don't be. You haven't read my stuff."
I peered at him. "May you what?"
"Read some of your stuff."
"Maybe sometime. Tell me more about yourself."
"Okay, then, my name is Frank. I'm not a cowboy. My folks are both gone, too, and I'm a cabinetmaker -- freelance. I'm a Leo, allergic to strawberries, and have flat feet. I spend a lot of time alone, read a lot, rarely watch television, and have a telescope I study the stars with. I like most kinds of music except classical, but mostly I listen to country -- Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood, Kelly Clarkson."
"Impressive. What kind of books do you read?"
"Mostly biographies, science, and historical fiction. Some 'how-to' books, and every now and then some 'chick lit', just to keep me humble." He grinned. "I am also addicted to crossword puzzles -- that's what I mostly do on Sundays."
"Really? Me, too! I love the Sunday crosswords!" I immediately regretted my words, fearful that he would think I was looking for an invitation to a Sunday morning crossword puzzle competition -- at his place.
"I like the challenge. Also, I read somewhere that keeping your mind active can help ward off dementia." He looked down and drew his finger back and forth across the table as if he were doodling.
"Yeah," he answered, not meeting my eyes. "My mom died of Alzheimer's, and they say that it can be hereditary."
"I'm sorry. About your mom."
Over the next three hours, we chatted about our lives, me trying not to reveal too much, in case he really was a serial killer. We talked about movies, books, music, our childhoods, our work, our friends -- though I left Carli completely out of it -- I already felt guilty for making her leave alone. Finally, the bartender hollered, "Last call, folks. Drink 'em up fast; we close the doors in fifteen minutes."
He hesitated for a minute, then squared his shoulders and said, "I'm hungry; wanna go get something to eat?"
Momentary unease touched the back of my neck with its chilly finger, but I smiled. "Sure; what'd you have in mind?"
"Taco Bell is my favorite post-bar meal. What about you?"
"Sounds fine. I don't have my car ..."
"That's okay," he interrupted. "I can drive, and then after we eat, I'll take you home."
"I don't know ..." I hesitated, more because of what I knew Carli's reaction would be than because of any fear I had of getting in a car with a total (nearly) stranger. "You could be a serial killer."
"Tell you what," he said, negotiating. "I'll let you drive, I'll ride in the back seat on the passenger's side with my hands folded together, and I won't say a word." He smiled. "How's that for a compromise that even your own mother couldn't find fault with?"
I laughed. "You don't know my mother!"
"Okay," he said, scratching his head. "How about this? I let you drive my car to the restaurant, and I catch a cab and meet you there. How can you turn that down? You could be part of a car thief syndicate, and here I am willing to give you my keys."
Now I was really laughing. "Okay. Okay. I guess it'll be all right."
"You can drive me in your car, and then I can catch a cab home from there. How's that for a deal?"
"Works for me." He stood up. "Shall we go?"
At 1:30 a.m., Taco Bell was remarkably busy. Post-bar rush, I assumed. Mostly younger people, all dressed like Kurt Cobain (men) or Courtney Lake (women), and preening themselves as though they were on some sort of goth catwalk at a fashion show featuring only black clothing.
We spend a few minutes arguing over who would pay, finally agreed to go Dutch, and ordered. While we waited for all-cholesterol meals, we seated ourselves at a table in the corner farthest away from the tattoos and piercings.
"So," Frank said, as he unwrapped his straw and stuck it in his large Coke.
"So," I echoed, smiling.
"See?" he asked, grinning. "That's what really attracted me to you in the first place -- your scintillating conversation and sharp wit."
"There you go again!" He was laughing now, and when we heard our order number called out, he rose and went to get the tray.
As he sat back down, I grinned at him. "You're a regular comedian! Want some advice? Don't quit your day job." I took a bite of my CrunchWrap.
"Check. Keep the day job. Good advice." He sat gazing at me so long I began to squirm with discomfort.
Wiping my mouth carefully with a paper napkin, I asked, "Are you gonna eat your meal?"
"Nah," he responded. "I don't really care for the food here."
"But ..." I was confused. "You suggested coming here!"
"I'm kidding," he protested. "The food's okay, but more importantly, it's the only restaurant in town that's open 24-7."
"And I thought you'd be more comfortable getting to know me in a public, nonthreatening venue."
"And you were exactly right." I lifted my CrunchWrap to take another bite, but first I said, "So how did you get started making cabinets? Family business?"
He shook his head. "No. I always liked working with my hands, and when I was a kid, my mom had our kitchen remodeled. I watched the guy make and install the cabinets, and it just looked so beautiful, I wanted to be able to create something that fine. After I graduated from high school, I asked the guy if I could apprentice with him ... and the rest, as they say, is history. I get enough business to keep me in jeans and beer, but I'll never get rich doing it. It's purely a labor of love. What about you? What led you to the path you now tread?"
I laughed. "Well, let me see. I've always been a writer, but it's only in the last few years that I've had the nerve to submit anything for publication. I've had a few short stories and a poem or two published in some online magazines, and now I'm writing a sure-fire future bestseller. The work at the nonprofit and the newspaper column are fun and pay the bills, but someday I'm gonna be the next Dan Brown or Erma Bombeck or Stephen King or something."
"How did you get the newspaper gig?" he asked, finally picking up his taco and taking a tiny bite out of one end.
"Well, that was actually quite lucky," I responded. "I guess I got the job because I'm a smartass." I took a drink of my tea. "The column is sort of a hodge-podge thing, like a commentary on life, the city, religion, and like that. The woman who was writing the column was about as old as God's dog, and she had totally run out of anything new to say. I wrote to the editor complaining and suggesting that perhaps someone younger could bring a fresh perspective to the column; and just for a lark, I sent him a couple of pieces I'd written for publication. The editor called me and suggested that I put my money where my mouth was and take over the column. So, I did." I smiled, waiting expectantly for praise for my daring-do.
"Whatever happened to the other columnist?"
I considered this. "I don't know exactly, to tell you the truth. I guess they fired her. Or maybe she took early retirement. I started writing the column two years ago, and I didn't really ask."
"So, basically, what you're telling me is that you cost an old woman her job just for the sake of bitching about the column because it didn't live up to your standards as an 'author'?" He made quote marks in the air. His expression changed to a combination of confusion and disappointment, and there was suddenly a crease between his brows.
Surprised at the heat in his voice, I stammered out a response. "Well, yeah, I guess, but ..."
He scooped up his meal, cup and napkins, and stood. "That might be the meanest thing I've ever heard. And you don't even have the good grace to pretend to care about what happened to the old lady." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill. Throwing it on the table in front of me, he said, "Here's money for your cab." Then he turned and walked away, exited the restaurant, and climbed into the cab of his truck. He started the engine, backed out of the parking space, and drove out of my life.
I was truly stunned, unsure how we went from practically setting up an actual date to the door closing behind him on his way out. Digging my cell phone out of my purse, I dialed Carli's number. It rang a couple of times, and then went to voice mail. "Hey, girlfriend," I said, "First of all, I want to apologize. I behaved very badly tonight. Also, I just thought you'd like to know that you were absolutely right. His favorite song is 'Walk-Away Joe'. I'll talk to you tomorrow." Closing the phone, I pocketed the ten and left without disposing of my trash.