Appetizers and Armani

Fiction
JG Alderisio


Photo Credit: thinkretail/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

How is it possible that an island only thirteen miles long and less than a mile wide at its narrowest point can jam almost two million people onto its shores and not have people constantly tripping over each other? It seems a mathematical impossibility. And yet on the Upper East Side in the middle of the day there’s a place where the luxury of emptiness exists, where walking on the sidewalk is not akin to a rugby scrum because the sidewalks are blissfully free of pedestrians. It may not be the only neighborhood in Manhattan so empty during the day, but between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, from 64th to 85th Streets certainly has to be one of the prettiest.

Sheilah knew that neighborhood well because she ambled through it every day. The apartment she shared with her husband Peter and their two kids was slightly north on Park Avenue and 88th Street. Whether jogging or shopping or simply running errands she usually headed down to the tranquility of that roughly twenty-block area to accomplish what she needed to do, even if it was just to wander. Sheilah loved looking at the rows of brownstones she found, some a white or dark gray color but most a deep red, the color of dried blood. She stopped to look at the black wrought iron fences many of the brownstones had, inspecting their scrollwork and how they impeded access to a small hill of steps as well as the front door. She peeked into what windows she could but most had their blinds down, their shutters closed as if no one was home which Sheilah assumed they weren’t. That’s why the neighborhood was so empty. Everyone was downtown somewhere earning the salary it took to own a brownstone between Madison and Park Avenues.

Today Sheilah headed for a small French bistro she thought was in the upper 70s about halfway between Park and Madison Avenue. She lunched there months ago and instead of looking up the address decided to trust her memory to guide her there. Though hazy on the location she absolutely remembered the name, La Table du Boucher, a name taken from a French fairy tale about a time of famine when an entire town was miraculously kept alive by the food the local butcher served on his small kitchen table.

After a few wrong turns Sheilah quickly corrected, she saw the handpainted sign for the bistro. The restaurant was on the ground floor of a building the color of sand and had a short, dark gray awning over the entrance. White peonies filled the flower boxes outside the two large front windows. A single table with two chairs stood to the right of the entrance, more for decoration than for function since La Table du Boucher did not deliver food, not even to its sidewalk. The real reason for the table outside was to hold the bistro’s menu.

It was a bit early for lunch so Sheilah expected to see many open tables and booths inside the restaurant. What surprised her when she scanned the room was seeing someone she knew at a table near a window.

“How did you get here before me? I’m local, you’re the foreigner here.”

Kyle stood and hugged his cousin. “I took an earlier train,” he explained. “Couldn’t wait to see you.” That was actually true but he knew Sheilah would only somewhat believe it. He thought his cousin looked appropriately casual for a lunch date. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, she wore a man’s white oxford shirt and a pair of black stirrup pants.

“How was the ride in? It must have been exciting to see Grand Central Station again.”

Kyle shook his head. “I didn’t come in through Grand Central. I took a train to the Bronx then hopped on a subway to get here. It takes longer but I saved a few dollars.”

A waiter appeared at their table and handed menus to Sheilah and Kyle. She described the specials and promised to return in a few minutes once they decided what to eat.

Sheilah stared at the menu splayed flat on the table in front of her. “Remember what you promised me,” she said.

“Hmm?” said Kyle absentmindedly since he was busy reading about the wonders French cooking could perform.

“You promised you’d let me know if you needed money,” said Sheilah.

Kyle looked up from his menu. “Where did that come from?” he asked, sounding confused. Then he remembered the subway story. “I’m okay, honest,” he said. “I’m just an efficient spender these days.” He went back to his menu. “What do you suppose a flaugnarde is?”

“Are you looking at the desserts already?”

Kyle went back to the top of the menu. He asked about his favorite aunt and uncle. “What are your folks up to?”

Sheilah exhaled dramatically. “Therese and Don are still hunkered down in the wilds of Connecticut,” she said. “They’ve turned their house into a dog shelter, I don’t know how many strays they have now. All I know is they’re too busy to drive to Manhattan to see their grandkids. When I ask why, Therese says ‘You don’t need us, you have everything. Those poor dogs have nothing, they’re the ones we can help’.” Sheilah closed her menu and left it face down on the table. “Can you imagine your parents saying something like that to you?”

“They wouldn’t say it, they’d just do it,” said Kyle. “You see how they abandoned me on this coast as soon as my little sister moved out west and started having kids. At first it was extended visits, then they bought a house out there. They decorate it with sticks, rock crystals, and cow skulls bleached in the dessert sun and pretend to be Georgia O’Keeffe.” Kyle picked up the wine list. “They haven’t stepped foot on this coast in years. Mom says she waves to it as she flies over New York on their trips to Europe. If I want to see Bill and Joan, I have to go to them. They’re not coming here.” Kyle handed the wine menu to Sheilah. “What would you say to some vin with lunch?”

“I want the biggest glass they have,” said Sheilah as she took the menu. “Remember when they acted like real parents and honestly wanted to be with us? All of us—both our families. For Christ’s sake, they herded us out to Long Island for all those summer vacations. That was a priority back then.”

Kyle closed his eyes. So many things only happened back then. “They dreamed of buying a house out there but it never happened,” he said. “They never really got over that.” Kyle looked around for the waitress so they could order. “But you have a place out there so at least someone in the family eventually got one.”

Sheilah was still deciding what wine she wanted. “Did I tell you the broker who sold us the house called it a ‘tear down’? To her, it was unlivable. We stayed in it for three summers before doing any renovations.” She took her eyes off the wine list and looked at Kyle. “Renovations you’ve never seen, by the way. You haven’t been out there for years.”

“I know,” Kyle said sheepishly. “Work always got in the way.”

A waitress appeared at their table. “Ready to order?” she asked.

The cousins made their final decisions about food and alcohol then let the waitress convey the news to the kitchen.

While they waited for their appetizers Sheilah asked about Kyle’s job search. He gave short, shallow answers and as soon as possible without seeming hasty he shifted the conversation back to family.

“How are your boys? They must be excited the end of the school year is near.”

“Oh good Lord that’s all they talk about,” said Sheilah. “You’d think they were being released from prison they’re so excited.”

“So Ian is finishing off seventh grade, is he?”

“No, eighth,” Sheilah answered, sounding suddenly panicked. “My baby’s going to high school next year.”

“That’s impossible,” said Kyle. “Did he skip a year?”

“No, honey, you did.” Sheilah looked at Kyle sympathetically. “But it’s easy to do. They grow up so fast.”

Apparently, thought Kyle as he wondered how he lost track of a year somewhere along the way. He didn’t want to make the same mistake with his cousin’s other kid so he chose his next words carefully. “That means come September Malcolm will be what?”

“Angrier than usual,” said Sheilah. “He doesn’t want to go to the same school as his little brother. But anyway, Malcolm will be a senior, Ian a freshman.”

Restaurant servers made periodic trips to the table to collect empty plates, refill water glasses and deliver the chosen entrees. When the entrée dishes were replaced by dessert menus, Sheilah read hers with unusual interest.

“This time we’re getting dessert,” she told her cousin. Kyle was not about to argue but it was odd that Sheilah wanted dessert. Something’s up. He was several spoonfuls into a chocolate soufflé before he found out what.

“I always love when we see each other, and we don’t do that often enough if you ask me,” said Sheilah. She casually picked at her half-eaten apple galette. “But I have to tell you I have an ulterior motive for getting together. I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

Was that all? That’s nothing. A favor he could do.

“It’s about the boys,” Sheilah said. “Now that school’s ending, we’ll go out to the beach for the summer. Months ago Peter read about a class at a local school that helps seniors do better on their SATs. So he signed up Malcolm. Of course he didn’t mention it to me. Then Ian found a cultural exchange program in London that he wanted to go to so we booked tickets for that. Now I find out these two things overlap.” Sheilah downed the last of her wine and considered ordering a second glass. “I can’t let Ian go to London alone, I have to go with him. That means Malcolm’s alone at the beach. Peter can’t go out there because he has to work. So I was thinking maybe you’d want to stay out there with Malcolm. The class is only for a week. It’s a ten-minute drive from our house. All you’d have to do is drive him to school in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon. The rest of the time you can do whatever you want: go to the beach, take bike trips, hang out in town, whatever.”

Kyle didn’t react. “What’s Malcolm think of this?”

“Oh he thinks he can stay by himself,” Sheilah scoffed. “Of course he does, he’s seventeen. And maybe he could. But the only car he’ll have out there is an old Jeep with a stick shift. He can barely drive an automatic, there’s no way he can handle a stick. So he knows he needs help.” Sheilah’s voice took on a more nostalgic tone. “Besides, I thought it’d be like old times for you. You can go to the same beaches we went to years ago. Some of the same shops and restaurants are still around. You know the neighborhoods out there so I thought it’d be a fun time. That and you’d really be helping out me and Peter of course.”

Kyle’s pictured bodysurfing in the ocean waves and having beers on the beach. “No problem. If you need me, of course I’ll do it,” he said.

Sheilah smiled. “That’s great but I don’t want to put you on the spot. Take some time to think about it and let me know.” She pushed the dessert plate away from her, signaling she was done eating. “Peter will be happy. He’s convinced the class will get Malcolm into a better college.”

“I guess I have to remember where I stored my bathing suit,” said Kyle.

“Most everything else we have out there. Beach towels, umbrellas, chairs, extra bicycles. Just bring clothes and a tooth brush.”

Kyle started making a mental list of the things he wanted to bring.

“And I’ll cover your expenses out there, too.”

Kyle looked confused.

“I don’t want you to lose money because you’re doing us a favor.”

“You’re not going to pay me. You’re family. This is what families do.”

“What if you have to turn down a freelance job because you’re with Malcolm? Or some kind of temporary position?” Sheilah asked. “I don’t want you missing out on income.”

“Stop it,’” Kyle said and imitated his cousin by pushing his dessert plate away from him. “You’re being ridiculous.”

The servers came and cleared the table followed by the waitress who delivered the check. When they saw the bill both cousins reached for it.

“I’m paying. You paid last time,” said Kyle.

“No, wait. Hear me out,” said Sheilah as she tried to wriggle the piece of paper out from underneath Kyle’s hand. “No one’s paying this time.”

“That’s a good trick if you can do it,” said Kyle though he didn’t relax his grip on the check.

Sheilah grabbed her bag and pulled out a folded-up piece of paper. She waved it in the air making the paper unfold like an accordion. “I have a gift certificate. Got it months ago and I’ve been dying to use it.”

Kyle released the check and Sheilah immediately started to write on it.

“Well, thank you. And give my thanks to whoever gave you the certificate,” said Kyle.

“What?” Sheilah looked up. It took her a moment to understand what he said. “Oh. Yeah sure,” she added and went back to writing.

Soon they were outside La Table du Boucher and walking along the city sidewalks, neither one of them anxious to go home.

“How’d you like to go shopping with me?” Sheilah asked.

Kyle had nowhere in particular to be and said as much. That’s how he found himself walking along Madison Avenue and eventually stopping outside the glass doors of the Giorgio Armani boutique.

“I need to pop inside for a few things,” said Sheilah as she moved toward the doors.

“When you said ‘shopping’ I thought you meant groceries,” said Kyle.

“Oh, if only. I need to find something to wear for this thing Peter and I have to go to.” She pushed on the right side of the double doors while Kyle pushed on the left which allowed them to step into the boutique at exactly the same time. They walked into a room with high ceilings, stainless steel columns, black wooden floors partially covered by cream-colored rugs and surprisingly few clothes considering how large the space was. Kyle saw dresses hanging in neat rows in small alcoves along the back of the room, black fabric chairs and dark wooden tables dotted the floor which gave the room a lounge-like look.

“Should I wait here for you?” asked Kyle as he stood at attention next to the entrance like some kind of doorman.

Sheilah looped her arm around his. “You’re coming with me,” she said and pulled him toward the elevator.

Seconds later they emerged onto a higher floor with the same ordered and uncluttered look of the first. A salesperson saw them arrive and walked over.

“Mrs. McKay, so good to see you. How have you been?”

“Hello, Lorenzo,” said Sheilah as the salesman kissed her on both cheeks. “I know I should have been here days ago.”

Lorenzo then looked at Kyle though to Kyle it felt more like an inspection. For the first time that day Kyle wished he’d worn a better pair of chinos and spent more time ironing his shirt.

“This is my cousin. I’m dragging him along on my errands,” Sheilah explained.

Lorenzo shifted his gaze toward Sheilah. “I have the things you wanted plus a few extras I thought you’d like to see. Shall we go take a look?”

Sheilah turned to Kyle. “I have to go try on a few things. Men’s clothes is right around that corner.” She pointed the way to Kyle. “Why don’t you go take a look.”

Lorenzo and Sheilah walked off whispering to each other as if they were telling secrets.

Kyle watched them go, then went looking to see what the Armani man wore.

The Men’s section had the same design aesthetic as the Women’s. Suits hung from shiny, stainless steel rods along the walls, perfectly-folded dress shirts sat on glass shelves that were backlit so the shirts appeared to glow. The top of one rosewood table held cuff links, tie clips, and a selection of leather belts. A second table displayed more ties than Kyle could count. He realized some men must have to wear clothes like these for work, but Kyle didn’t know any of them. He tried to think of the last time he wore a suit. A jacket, yes, sometimes he wore those to client meetings. Suits just collected dust in his closet.

Kyle turned and saw shoes on glass shelves that jutted out from a wall. Shoes were another matter, shoes he could use. Each pair sat on its own plate of glass lit by spotlights somewhere in the ceiling making each pair the center of attention on its tiny glass stage. Kyle looked at leather loafers, loafers that looked like slippers, oxford lace ups, formal patent leather shoes, though he didn’t touch a single pair until he came upon the leather lace up boots.

He picked up the right boot and ran his hand along the side simply to feel the leather that was such a dark brown color it looked almost black. He turned the boot over to inspect the leather sole. Kyle looked for the signs of hand stitching then noted whether the sole was double- or triple-layered.

“That’s my favorite shoe in the whole store.” The voice startled Kyle. He looked up to see Lorenzo by his side. “They’re full-grain calf’s leather so they’ll last for years.”

Kyle wasn’t sure what to say but felt he had to say something. “That’s nice,” was the first thing he thought of.

Lorenzo continued. “The ankle height is perfect for a boot because it looks great with jeans, chinos, almost any casual slack.”

“I’m just looking,” Kyle said. “It’s something to do while I wait.”

“Trying them on would be something to do,” said Lorenzo. “While you wait.”

“Oh, no,” said Kyle as if the thought was impossible. “I’m a tag-along. My cousin’s the customer.”

Lorenzo did not look convinced. “Then can I get you some coffee or water? We have wine or prosecco if you’d like that.”

“Really? Alcohol’s an option?” Kyle asked.

“Alcohol’s always an option,” Lorenzo smiled. “For customers.”

There was the sound of heels clicking on hardwood floors and moments later Sheilah appeared. She wore a slinky black-and-white dress with matching spike-heeled shoes. “How do I look?” she asked as she dramatically raised her arms into the air.

Besides her wedding, Kyle had never seen his cousin in any kind of formal wear. “You look fantastic,” he said.

Sheilah made a short curtsy then noticed what Kyle had in his hand. “Those are nice shoes,” she said. “Why don’t you try them on?”

“That’s what I said,” Lorenzo echoed.

Kyle shook his head. “Not today.”

“Why not? That’s what we’re here for,” said Sheilah.

“It’s what you’re here for,” Kyle replied.

Sheilah would not be denied. “Lorenzo, would you be a dear and bring a pair out for my cousin.”

“I won’t tell you my size,” Kyle said as if that was an impenetrable roadblock.

Sheilah smiled. “You are so adorable,” she said and turned to her personal shopper. “Lorenzo, where do you want to begin?”

Lorenzo winked at Sheilah then crossed one arm over his chest and raised the hand of his other arm to his chin in a classic appraisal pose. “Well, from his height alone he’s statistically at least a size 11, but looking at the shoes he’s wearing now, I’d say they’re a 12. Maybe even a 12-and-a-half.” Lorenzo circled Kyle, more for effect than anything else. “I notice you sometimes wince slightly when you walk, especially when you’re on the left foot. Now maybe you have a pebble or something in your shoe and you’re too embarrassed to take it out. But more likely I’d say your shoes are too narrow for your feet. I’d start you on a size 12, wide. No question.”

Sheilah looked at Kyle and noticed even he seemed impressed. “He’s a professional,” she said as she pointed to Lorenzo. “That’s why it’s so fun to come here.” Sheilah looked down at the dress she wore. “Okay, I have a few more things to try on and now Kyle it looks like you do, too. So Lorenzo, if you’d escort me back to the dressing room.”

“Of course,” he said. And once again Lorenzo and Sheilah walked away whispering to each other like conspirators.

“You said he’d be difficult and you were right,” said Lorenzo. “He’s a hard man to buy a gift for.”

“It’s not exactly a gift,” Sheilah explained. “He’s going to babysit my teenage son for a week.”

“Ugh,” said Lorenzo before he could stop himself. It would take way more than a free pair of shoes to get him to babysit one of his teenage relatives.

Lorenzo dropped Sheilah off at the dressing area then went in search of shoes for Kyle.

He was gone for a while, long enough for Sheilah to try on and reject several outfits. But eventually he returned to Sheilah’s dressing area, boxes in hand.

“What’s wrong?” asked Sheilah.

“He says he doesn’t like them anymore,” said Lorenzo.

“He’s lying.” Sheilah put her hands on her hips. “What’s not to like? They’re gorgeous shoes. Am I wrong? Are they not gorgeous?”

“They’re beyond gorgeous. I told him they were my favorite shoe in the store,” said Lorenzo.

“Will they look amazing on him?”

Lorenzo had no doubt. “His feet were made for these boots.”

Sheilah looked at the boxes in Lorenzo’s hands. “And one of those pairs will fit him?”

“Guaranteed,” he replied.

“Fuck it,” Sheilah said then went to a side table in the dressing area, picked up a pen and began scribbling on a piece of paper. “Here’s his address. Mail those boxes to him but tell him—and this is important—tell him in no uncertain terms that he has to keep one of these pairs. Word it however you like but instructions have to sound ironclad or he’ll never follow them.”

She tore the piece of paper from the pad and handed it to Lorenzo. “He can mail back what doesn’t fit, but he has to keep something.”

Lorenzo pocketed Kyle’s mailing address. “Leave it all to me,” he said. “So that takes care of him, now what about you?”

Sheilah exhaled, as if trying to center herself. “I am so much easier,” she said. Sheilah told Lorenzo which outfits she wanted and which he could put back on the floor then changed back into the clothes she walked in with.

“You’re the best,” Sheilah told Lorenzo when she kissed him goodbye. “Thanks for all your help.”

Then Sheilah went back to the Men’s section where she found Kyle sitting in a black overstuffed chair. He looked like he was staring into space.

“All ready to go?” she asked cheerily.

Kyle saw her empty hands. “You’re not getting anything?”

Sheilah took his arm once again and together they walked toward the elevator. “I don’t want to lug everything around the city.”

“I’ll lug it around. How heavy can it be?”

Sheilah patted his arm. “Thanks, but that’s what delivery services are for.”

Once back on the sidewalk Sheilah and Kyle meandered toward Fifth Avenue and an entrance to Central Park. They were on one of the pathways by the children’s zoo when Kyle said, “I have a few more thoughts about Malcolm and Long Island.”

Oh boy, here it comes, thought Sheilah. He’s had second thoughts about babysitting.

“If you think it’d make Malcolm feel any better, we could position my visit as a week-long private driving tutorial. He can’t drive a stick and I can. I’ll come out there to teach him.”

Sheilah heard everything Kyle said but the only words she cared about were the ones where he said he’d go to Long Island. And if she recalled correctly, he actually said it twice. Kyle wasn’t backing out after all.

“That’s really generous of you,” said Sheilah. “But honestly I don’t care how Malcolm feels about this. I’m the parent, he’s the child and there’s no way he’s staying out there on his own. So I’ll tell him the driver’s ed story if it makes you more comfortable. Otherwise Malcolm just has to suck it up.”

Their circuitous path took them around fountains and up hills; they went passed a vintage carousel and ball fields where young men wearing shorts played games with bats and gloves. Eventually their wandering led them to the other side of the park where they emerged on the west side of Manhattan. The sun was lower in the sky now and without looking at their watches Sheilah and Kyle knew it was time to go home.

“I guess the next time I see you will be in the Hamptons,” Kyle said.

“I know, isn’t it exciting?” said Sheilah. “Don’t forget, I’ll text you all the details and I’ll call you before you take the train out so there shouldn’t be any surprises.”

Sheilah threw her arms around Kyle. Kyle was obscenely taller than Sheilah, the top of her head barely came up to his chin. When Sheilah hugged her cousin it always felt like she was hugging a tree.

“Let’s get you a cab,” said Kyle as he looked at the traffic speeding past them.

“Now where are you off to?” asked Sheilah.

Kyle acted like this was an odd question. “Westchester, where else?”

“So you’ll need a cab too. To Grand Central.”

Kyle turned back to the traffic. “Yeah, yeah,” he said.

“Okay, so you take the first cab and I’ll get one after that.”

Kyle almost laughed at the idea. “No, no, no, no, no,” he said. “You’re going first.”

Sheilah took a step away from the curb like she was retreating from the street. “I know what you’re going to do. As soon as my cab’s out of sight, you’ll head straight for the subway. I don’t like you taking a subway up to the Bronx.”

Kyle dropped the hand he was using to hail a cab. “There’s nothing wrong with doing that.”

Sheilah’s eyes widened. “I knew it! I knew I was right.”

Then simply because he didn’t want one to at that moment, an empty cab pulled up beside Kyle. The two cousins looked at each other.

“Please,” said Sheilah.

Kyle opened the door and climbed into the backseat of the cab.

Sheilah stepped off the sidewalk and leaned into Kyle’s window. “Thank you for everything,” she said. “And don’t worry, there’s an empty cab right behind you that I’ll get.”

Kyle didn’t turn around and look because he wanted to believe it was true.

“Watch for my text,” Sheilah continued. She reached into her right pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “This will cover the cab,” she said as she threw the bill into the backseat, aiming for a section of it Kyle couldn’t immediately reach. Then she banged twice on the roof of the cab and yelled to the cab driver to get moving.

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J.G. Alderisio is a sometime advertising copywriter who is far more interested in telling stories than selling products. He was educated in New England and lives in New York. An essay of his appeared in Hudson Valley Magazine. This is his first published work of fiction. Email: Getthegenenow121[at]gmail.com

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